Movie Rewatch of Great Nostalgia

Meandering with a Mazy Motion: Xanadu

A million lights are dancing, Tor.com, so come and see what I thought of a place no box office dared to go!

Yes, the Movie Rewatch of Great Nostalgia is covering that most interesting of failures: 1980’s Xanadu! With a guest appearance by Brother-in-Law Peter!

Previous entries can be found here. Please note that as with all films covered on the Nostalgia Rewatch, this post will be rife with spoilers for the film.

And now, the post!

Here’s the thing: until this week, I had never actually seen Xanadu before.

So why are you doing a Nostalgia post about it, Leigh, you ask, entirely reasonably? To which I say, it’s basically because of two things: a continued lack of Sister Kate (who would most likely have voted against it) and a surplus of in-law.

Specifically, Liz’s husband Peter. Who, in hearing our discussion on which movie to do next, was vociferously dismayed by my Xanadu-less state, and thenceforth embarked on an eventually successful campaign for the idea that the MRGN could encompass movies we should have seen in our Yoots as well as the ones we actually did see, on the grounds that he really really really wanted me to watch one of his favorite movies ever, namely, this one.

ME: You realize I might not like it, right?

PETER: Oh, you’ll probably hate it, it’s a terrible movie. But I bet you will love watching it.

And, well. Our experiences with Barbarella certainly support his theory, after all. And I admit I had always been vaguely curious to patch this particular hole in my Lowbrow Pop Culture… er, tapestry. Collage? Quilt?

Whatever, you know what I mean. So I agreed on an experimental basis, and Peter and Liz and I sat down to watch one of the more notorious box-office-flop-turned-cult-favorite films of the 1980s. Whee!

Things I did not know before this week about Xanadu:

  • It had an insanely large budget for the time ($20 million), when most movies’ budgets were half that;
  • It made less than $23 million at the box office, which, ow;
  • I know way more of the soundtrack than I thought I did;
  • It was Gene Kelly’s last film;
  • It has an extended animated sequence courtesy of Don Bluth;
  • It is, in fact, terrible;
  • I did, in fact, enjoy watching it anyway.

If not really for the same reasons that I suspect Peter or many of Xanadu’s fans enjoy the movie. For me, it’s more a kind of fascination with watching a trainwreck that came so, so close to not derailing, and yet did anyway.

I’ve said it before, possibly on this blog, but sometimes it’s more interesting to watch a movie that aimed for greatness and missed than one that squarely hit the mark. And make no mistake, Xanadu was intended to be great. It had all the elements, all the hottest trends! Musicals were back! The most fabulous new talent (Olivia Newton John!) paired with the most venerable of screen legends (Gene Kelly!)! Music from Electric Light Orchestra! Roller disco! Complex elaborate set pieces! Booty shorts! California! Greek mythology! Neon day-glo post-psychedelic everything! What could possibly go wrong?

Yeah, well, it turns out that when you take a whole slew of elements which are separately awesome but don’t bear any obvious connection to each other, and attempt to solve that disconnectedness by throwing it all in a blender and hitting frappe, the results might be… problematic.

Because don’t get me wrong: most of those things are, indeed, badass in isolation. Roller disco was a cherished part of my childhood, and like probably just about every American who was a child in the 80s, I had more than one birthday party at our local Skate Country.

And Olivia Newton John has a voice like literal magic, and I’m gonna go ahead and stick this here now because it’s been stuck in my head for DAYS and now it’s your turn:

This is a legitimately great song, which absolutely deserved its 4 weeks at the top of the Billboard charts in 1980. And most of the rest of Xanadu’s soundtrack is just as great (though “Magic” is my definite personal favorite), with multiple tracks like “Suddenly” and the title track “Xanadu” also ending up chart-toppers. The soundtrack, in fact, is unquestionably the best thing about the entire project. Certainly it was the only aspect of it that didn’t end up a flop.

And then there’s Gene Kelly, who’s… well, he’s effin’ Gene Kelly, my God, what’s wrong with you people. I’ll spare you my standard impassioned sermon on why Singin’ in the Rain is the best musical ever made, to say nothing of the rest of his storied career, and just say that I had to stubbornly resist the impulse to be sad/angry that this was the way Kelly’s professional career ended. Because (a) this is so not how he is remembered at all; his legend was secure long before Xanadu (evidenced by the fact that I didn’t even know he was in this until now), and (b) it’s not like this movie didn’t want to respect him. Xanadu, in fact, tried really really hard to honor Gene Kelly and his legacy. That it did so rather incompetently is a different issue, technically.

Peter, it must be noted, totally disagrees with me on this; he loves that scene. And I will admit it has some charm, mostly because of the ridiculous amounts of charm the two people on screen possess just by breathing, much less singing and dancing. But the number reflects the larger problem that Xanadu had overall: it had all this great talent and all this great music, yet had very small ideas of what to do with it. The choreography and cinematography of what should be spectacular, stunning musical numbers… Well, uninspired is probably the kindest word I could use. If also the most ironic one, considering the plot of the movie.

Or maybe I should say “plot”, because Xanadu really had more of a penciled-in outline of a story than an actual one. It’s a bad sign when my note almost thirty minutes in reads “I still don’t know what this movie is about.” I mean, I twigged to the big reveal that “ONJ = Greek Muse” at least ten minutes before the movie blatantly gave it to you, nyah, but that doesn’t solve the problem that the movie never really even tries to give us an explanation of why a centuries-old mythological figger would fall for a 1980s venue promoter when she used to hang out with the likes of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. I’m not saying that couldn’t happen, mind you, just that the film doesn’t give us any reason to believe it. Or believe anything that happens at all, really.

By far the movie’s biggest sin, though (and this is something that Peter and Liz and I unanimously agreed on), is the horrific miscasting of the alleged lead role of Sonny Malone (*wince*), “performed” by Michael Beck, quotation marks deployed with extreme prejudice in this sentence.

LIZ: God, he was awful.

ME: And completely unattractive, too.

Seriously, I don’t get it. He’s clearly meant to be, like, so dreamy, and just, ugh. But, as I have already demonstrated, I clearly find the standards of male attractiveness in the late 70s/early 80s to be problematic at best (unless you’re Harrison Ford, of course). It’s probably all the hair.

After the movie, Liz and Pete and I had a lively debate about who should have been cast as Sonny. Reuniting ONJ with John Travolta, we decided, would probably have been pretty amazing, but Xanadu might possibly have been about 400% even more improved if they’d had the foresight to cast Kevin Kline, who at the time was already a huge Broadway star but was only just starting to branch into Hollywood. Who can say what would have happened if his first movie musical had been Xanadu instead of Pirates of Penzance? Something MAGICAL, maybe.

Then again, it’s equally possible that even Kevin Kline couldn’t have rescued the mostly-hot mess that is Xanadu. We’ll never know, I guess.

All of that said, I do think Xanadu is worth watching if you’ve never seen it. Because like I said, it fails, but it fails interestingly. Not to mention, it possesses some of the most hilariously cockamamie early 80s craziness you have ever laid your eyes on, like the whole thing fell off the side of an airbrushed stoner’s van on the way to a Pink Floyd concert. (The linked video of the title track “Xanadu” above, by the way, apparently cuts out the completely random and utterly whacko segue halfway through the number into some kind of glam rock-slash-swing-slash-country… thing. Peter referred to it as “the most awesomely WTF sequence ever”, and I… can’t disagree with him, really.) It’s not that there’s no awesomeness there; it’s just that the various bits of awesomeness never managed to gel into a whole.

Liz, by contrast, has a rather better opinion of it than me, despite also not seeing it until as an adult, albeit over ten years ago. Her verdict is that it is “wonderfully ridiculous”, and a lot of fun if you’re willing to just go with it.

PETER: Even the bad acting can’t destroy how incredible the music was and the magical 80s-ness of it for me. I love it even though I realize it’s objectively not the greatest movie.

I do see why Xanadu became a cult fave. And I also really do wonder if I would have been more able to forgive its (glaring) flaws if I had, like Peter, seen it as a kid in the theater instead of, you know, less than a week ago. Nostalgia, as we’ve pretty conclusively demonstrated in this blog series, is a powerful thing.

And so, the MRGN Nostalgia Love to Reality Love 1-10 Scale of Awesomeness, divided by necessity!

For Peter:

Nostalgia: 9
Reality: 6

For Liz:

Nostalgia: 7
Reality: 5

For me:

Nostalgia: 2 (because I remember all the radio play the music got)
Reality: 4 (though I give the soundtrack a 7)

And now, I turn it over to you, O my Peeps! Did you see Xanadu back in the day? Did you love it then? Do you think you’d still love it now? Are you ever going to get “Magic” out of your head? Am I? Do we even want to? Tell me your thoughts!


And then, have a lovely two weeks, and come back for more! I can tell you now, the MRGN lineup for October is gonna be awesome. See you then!

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