Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.
Cultural infamy: “In a word, Xana-don’t.” So went Esquire’s one-sentence appraisal of Xanadu, the instant camp non-classic that opened in the summer of 1980, a full year after anti-disco fever reached its ugly crescendo during “Disco Demolition Night” at Comiskey Park in Chicago. But killing disco—or at least being a tacky casualty of the form’s spectacular collapse, alongside the likes of Can’t Stop The Music and The Apple—was just the tip of the infamy iceberg. Xanadu’s legacy is defined by two more dubious achievements:
1. Inspired by a double-bill of Can’t Stop The Music and Xanadu, John Wilson founded the Golden Raspberry Awards, better known as The Razzies, to honor the very worst in cinematic achievement every year. Though the former film ultimately took Worst Picture in the Razzies’ inaugural ceremony, Xanadu earned nominations in most of the major categories (Picture, Actor, Actress, Screenplay, Director, and Song), and director Robert Greenwald—who went on to make left-wing documentaries like Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War On Journalism and Wal-Mart: The High Cost Of Low Price—was honored for his colossal ineptitude.
2. Xanadu featured the final performance of musical icon Gene Kelly (not counting his introduction of 1994’s That’s Entertainment III), and many people—including the staff of The A.V. Club—consider it one of the least dignified cinematic swan songs by a major actor. (Some of his company: Orson Welles in Transformers: The Movie, Bela Lugosi in Plan 9 From Outer Space, and Peter Sellers in The Fiendish Plot Of Dr. Fu Manchu.)
A few other reviews from major sources at the time: “a mushy and limp musical fantasy” (Roger Ebert, who at least prefers it to Can’t Stop The Music); “a stupendously bad film” (Variety); “Like The Wiz, Xanadu is desperately stylish without having any real style” (Janet Maslin, The New York Times).
Curiosity factor: As a chronicler of cult movies, I haven’t failed to notice that Xanadu has amassed a following over the years, enough to inspire a tongue-in-cheek 2007 Broadway musical and prompt a “Magical Musical Edition” DVD re-release (with the Olivia Newton-John and Electric Light Orchestra soundtrack included) in 2008. Whether Xanadu cultists are genuinely enchanted by the movie or enjoy it ironically as a hunk of disco cheese—or both—there has to be something special about it, right? Plus, I think “Magic” is pretty solid single by Olivia Newton-John standards, and the duet “Suddenly” is something of a guilty pleasure. And when I wanted to see Gene Kelly on roller skates—though it sickens me to admit I wanted to—there’s only one movie that could make that happen.
The viewing experience: My colleague Nathan Rabin coined the helpful term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” in honor of Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, citing her as a prime example of a “bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” But is there a more grating MPDG than Olivia Newton-John in Xanadu? Appearing first as part of a beachside mural come to life, Newton-John’s Kira is called to life by Zeus to inspire painter Sonny Malone (Michael Beck) to create the world’s most fabulous disco rink. In her flowing, exceedingly modest gown and fashionable leggings, Kira is a handsome creature indeed, but she’s so magical, sprightly, and not-of-this-earth that she evaporates any time Sonny gets close to her. A maddening pattern develops: Kira materializes out of the blue, either from afar or swooping in for a roll-by kiss, then disappears just as swiftly in a flash of neon light. Sonny is suitably bewitched by this Greek temptress, but she cannot stop pulling away from him; it’s like Lucy with the football, and Sonny keeps falling for it. Here’s the wackiest example of Kira playing hard to get:
Xanadu’s plot actually dovetails nicely with Greenwald’s future endeavors as the lefty-doc hatchet man behind Brave New World films: Sonny wants to pursue his dreams as a freelance artist, but his ideals are compromised by the bloodless corporation that employs him for commercial work. Sonny’s job is to paint large-scale representations of album covers for display at record stores, and he’s the best at it, but his boss wants to keep him in line. “No more artsy-craftsy Sonny Malone touches,” he says. Later, he advises Sonny to smarten up and give up art. (No themes in Xanadu’s screenplay are implied if they can be expressed outright.) Kira appears to Sonny like the voice in Field Of Dreams: “Build it and they will come.” Only “it,” in this case, is the abandoned auditorium that Sonny will turn into the hottest roller-skating disco nightclub ever. Because there’s no higher aspiration for an artist than creating an instant relic to a soon-to-be-reviled cultural movement.
How does Gene Kelly figure into this splendiferous fantasy? He’s the deep-pocketed Danny McGuire, a former ’40s Big Band great who now has little better to do than to play his woodwind by the beach at sunset and reminisce about times past. Kira appears to him, too, as a brassy singer from the good old days, which is more than enough to get him to bankroll Sonny’s passion project. Though blandly choreographed, an early song-and-dance number with Newton-John strikes a respectful tone toward Kelly’s living-legend status, and even gives the 67-year-old an opportunity to do a little soft-shoe. So far, so charming, but once Sonny, Danny, and Kira join forces, Greenwald piles on the indignities, leading to claw-your-eyes-out sequences like this one, where the youngsters convince Danny to try on hip clothes for the club’s gala opening:
I can see the camp allure of montages like this—shades of the unfortunate “trying-on-tuxes” sequence in Brian De Palma’s otherwise excellent Carrie—but the Gene Kelly factor squelches the fun. The creative force behind Singin’ In The Rain—the man whose name is virtually synonymous with the screen musical—should not be stepping out in zoot suits and fringey white-leather cowboy outfits while new-wave cartoons gawk at him. Then again, Xanadu is a monument to bad taste with or without him: It balances out a hilariously wooden romance with gaudy visual effects and a series of ineptly staged musical numbers. (An endless ’40s bandstand-vs.-’80s-“rock” medley is the worst offender, though a Don Bluth-animated ELO music interlude, featuring images Bluth would more or less pilfer later for 1994’s Thumbelina, comes a close second.) Mysteriously, Greenwald only occasionally lets Newton-John lip-sync her own songs; most of the time, they just play on the soundtrack without a source as she skates in and out of the frame.
But for as dumb as Xanadu gets, it’s never as dumb as it assumes its audience is. In my favorite scene in the movie—one that improbably connects it to the recent Romanian film Police, Adjective—Kira informs Sonny that she’s been sent to be his muse. How does she make sure he understands the significance of that? She has him look up “muse” in the dictionary! Truly, cinema at its most edifying.
How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? Beyond some so-bad-it’s-good value, the only sequence I guiltily enjoyed was Sonny and Kira’s skate-around to “Suddenly,” which takes place in a special-effects soundstage that has them dashing through a desert oasis, a train station, and a rainstorm. Once again, Greenwald chooses to pipe in the music rather than have Newton-John and Beck mouth the vocals, and there’s nothing more awkward and unsexy than a couple clomping around on roller skates. But it’s a sweet sentiment. By my calculations, that makes 4 percent of Xanadu worthwhile.