It needs to be said! It must be said! And here, on the 25th anniversary of its theatrical premiere, it will be said: “Xanadu” is the greatest movie musical ever made!
No, this review is not being co-written with input from Jim Beam or Jack Daniels. I can gladly throw caution to the wind and open myself to the slings and arrows of outrageous readers in claiming that the 1980 roller disco musical starring Olivia Newton-John is the very pinnacle of the movie musical genre. More so than “The Wizard of Oz” or “Singin’ in the Rain” or “The Sound of Music” or any other musical you can name.
Perhaps I need to clarify my enthusiasm a bit. Does “Xanadu” possess the best musical score of all time? No, not in the least, but it is a damn fine score. Is it the most artistically inventive musical? Not at all – no one would ever mistake director Robert Greenwald with Bob Fosse or Vincente Minnelli. Does it offer the best choreography of all time? Well, the roller skating numbers are fun, but there are other films with superior dance numbers.
So how does “Xanadu” qualify as the greatest movie musical? Simple: it offers nothing but pure wall-to-wall fun and nonsense to keep a smile on one’s face from the opening credits (which cleverly spoof the logo of Universal Pictures) through the end of the picture.
“Xanadu” (like many great musicals) is based on another source, in this case the 1947 movie “Down to Earth.” This time around, it is L.A. circa 1980 and a talented artist named Sonny Malone (Michael Beck) who is employed painting large advertising reproductions of album covers finds his muse – literally, she is Terpsichore, the muse of dance, and a daughter of Zeus and Hera of Mount Olympus fame (but it is called Mount Halcyon here). She emerges with her multicultural sister-muses out of a mural to roller skate about L.A. She takes the nom-de-muse Kira and brings forth inspiration with an adorable Australian accent. Of course, she is played by Olivia Newton-John, but we’ll genuflect to her glory shortly.
Sonny is not Kira’s first outlet for inspiration. Some four decades earlier, she inspired a clarinetist named Danny Maguire to find his musical dream. Alas, the years forced Danny to become practical and he turned into a filthy rich businessman. Danny is played by Gene Kelly, who was 68 when he made this film and was still in fine dancing form.
To make a long screenplay short, Kira’s muse magic inspires Danny and Sonny to turn a dilapidated auditorium into a roller disco mecca. Danny has the money, Sonny has the décor ideas, and together they create Xanadu. But in a spot of bad timing, Kira is called back to her parents in Museville. But Sonny realizes where she is living: inside the mural from where she first appeared. Sonny roller skates into the mural and winds up in a groovy netherworld where he confronts Zeus (offered up as the disembodied voice of British actor Alex Hyde-White) to get Kira’s return. Needless to say, old Zeus finds it in his big old Greek god heart to let Kira go back to Sonny in time for the film’s grand finale.
Is this a dumb story? You bet! But it is a happy sort of dumbness; it is escapist-silly without being emotionally-stupid. This is a movie where Olivia Newton-John dances out of a mural, straps on roller skates and heads to the beach while the soundtrack throbs with the Electric Light Orchestra wailing “I’m alive!” – hell, is anyone expecting Bergman or Tarkovsky here?
And now we can worship Olivia Newton-John. This woman is f*****g gorgeous in “Xanadu” – it is easy for anyone to be inspired by her. She wears scores of great costumes (including an end-of-the-world cape with triangular collar in the closing number), and she dances, and she sings, and she acts – okay, she can’t act, but she looks so fantastic that it is easy to overlook this. In fact, Newton-John is such a strong presence that her sex appeal and star power compensates for Michael Beck’s lack of both as her leading man. (Beck was the bad boy star of “The Warriors,” but he strangely failed to bring his energy from that flick to “Xanadu.”)
But then there’s Gene Kelly, who gamely goes through his song-and-dance routine while clearly winking at the audience that he knows this is a wacky movie. He enjoys a nicely nostalgic dream sequence dance number with Newton-John, who dresses in a 1940s outfit in recalling her previous incarnation as his muse, and then he good-naturedly does a zany clothing make-over number which allows him to try on inappropriate outfits (imagine Gene Kelly dressed as a pimp!). And in the finale, when Xanadu opens for business, Kelly gets on the roller skates and leads an army of dancers in a wild spin on wheels. Seeing someone of Kelly’s age doing something as vigorous as this is quite a site, and the veteran showman keeps his grin wide as he skates about with supersonic abandon.
The “Xanadu” musical numbers must be seen to be believed. At one point, Newton-John and Beck turn into cartoon fish (courtesy of Don Bluth’s animation) while professing their love in dance. In another turn, Kelly and Beck envision their Xanadu as a mix of 1940s and 1980 musical style, which comes alive in a battle of dance squads (the 1940s embodied in zoot suited dancers, 1980 in the hideous New Wave fashion that was chic back when). And then there is that grand finale, with Newton-John going through a skein of costumes while switching between disco, country and rock to announce the glory of her roller heaven:
“A place where nobody dared to go,
the love that we came to know,
They call it Xanadu!
And now, open your eyes and see,
what we have made is real,
We are in Xanadu!”
A few years ago, I saw “Xanadu” with audiences at a pair of revival screenings in New York. One of the screenings was primarily populated with teen girls, the other with gay guys who seemed to be in their 30s and 40s. And while those two audiences seemed to have no common bond, they both reacted wildly to the film. The teen girls bounced (literally) to the music, giggled at the loved scenes and cheered wildly when love conquered all amidst the Xanadu roller experience. The gay guys grooved to the music (no one was bouncing, at least not from where I was observing), giggled at the camp appeal of the film’s romantic entanglements, and cheered as Newton-John changed costumes that kept getting grander and crazier with each new turn.
So is “Xanadu” strictly for teen girls and gay camp aficionados? Not likely. “Xanadu” is a delightful fantasy blessed with a surprisingly sturdy score (the soundtrack was a number one album and spawned several hit songs) and a rather wonderfully naïve notion that love and roller skating can always save the day. It is the rare film that can literally suck you out of today’s cynical and increasingly dangerous world into a nutty parallel universe, and then deposit you back with a sense of exhilaration and good cheer in your system. The film was a commercial flop when it debuted 25 years ago, but that is no surprise: old-fashioned escapism and innocent fun was considered passé then. Today, it is a valuable commodity and “Xanadu” is a major gem because of its innocence and delirious spirit.
Yeah, there are musicals with more panache and brainpower. You can keep ‘em! For me, I want to see Olivia Newton-John spinning about on roller skates. She’s my muse, and “Xanadu” is my musical!
“The love, the echoes of long ago,
you needed the world to know
They are in Xanadu!
The dream that came through a million years
That lived on through all the tears, it came to Xanadu!”
Universal wasn’t planning a special re-release, so let me pick up for their sloppiness and say: Happy 25th anniversary, “Xanadu”!