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Xanadu (1980) – Awfully Good

I see lots of talk about GREASE as we mourn the loss of Olivia-Newton John, but let’s not forget the real crowning achievement of her career…

Xanadu (1980)

Director: Robert Greenwald
Stars: Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly, Michael Beck

XANADU title

IS THERE A PLOT?

A muse from the heavens comes to Earth to better our world by… [checks notes]… helping a struggling artist and an elderly rich man achieve their newfound dream of opening up a roller disco.

WHAT’S THE DAMAGE?

XANADU is a legendary bad movie for many reasons. Razzies creator John J. B. Wilson hated it so much that it led him to invent an official award show to celebrate the worst films of the year. It also has the designation of being screen legend Gene Kelly’s final film before his death, a rainbow-colored pimple on the ass of a renowned career. But, perhaps worst of all, XANADU’s critical and commercial failure all but killed the blossoming career of GREASE breakout star Olivia Newton-John, tarnishing Hollywood’s idea of her as a leading lady.

Even with all that weight on its sparkly shoulders, XANADU is not without its charms. I actually reviewed this movie for Awfully Good back in 2008 and my younger, disco-hating self called it “my personal version of hell—bad music and Michael Beck on skates.” I won’t pretend it’s a diamond in the rough, desperately in need of reevaluation—XANADU is terrible, laughable and deserving of its spot on the all-time worst lists. But watching it now, it’s a little easier to appreciate some of the fun in all the colorful corniness. With the unending parade of garish outfits, cheesy songs by Electric Light Orchestra, and general 80s goofiness, it’s like a time capsule of bad decisions. And you kind of have to respect the confidence with which it skates headfirst in to it all with an upbeat attitude. At the very least, it’s not hard to see why this has developed a devoted cult following.

Xanadu Gene Kelly clarinet
You know you’re in for a treat when a movie opens with Gene Kelly lounging at the beach playing the clarinet as the sun gloriously rises.

XANDAU gets right to it, introducing us to starving artist Sonny, played by Michael Beck, who you may recognize from THE WARRIORS and Awfully Good classic MEGAFORCE. Sonny is frustrated at his lack of success and new ideas and he tears up his work in frustration and tosses the pieces out the window, which get blown by the wind across town to a painted mural of various muses from Greek mythology. Of course the sheer power of Sonny’s stifled talent brings the muses to life in neon glow as they dance to ELO, before running off in trails of colored light back to the heavens. All of them except Olivia Newton John’s Kira, who roller skates away, finds Sonny on the street, kisses him, and vanishes.

It’s like a day-glo fever dream that perfectly sets up what’s to come in the remaining 90 minutes.

Sonny ditches his day job painting album covers for a record company and sets out to find his mysterious stalker. Along the way he befriends Gene Kelly’s Danny, a rich, eccentric old man who spends his days playing clarinet on the beach for some reason. They hit it off, but Sonny also abandons him as soon as he spots Kira. He finally finds her skating alone in a dilapidated old nightclub and despite her being cryptic and weird about who she is and where she comes from, he immediately falls in love with her. Obviously, because she’s Olivia Newton-John.

Xanadu Olivia Newton John
Olivia Newton-John — amazing entertainer, terrible peekaboo player.

Turns out Danny has been looking for the perfect place to open his dream music venue and at Kira’s behest, Sonny suggests the abandoned club would be perfect. The two of them simultaneously picture their perfect nightlife hotspot—for Danny it’s a classy big-band jazz club, while Sonny sees it as a glitzy, over-the-top rock palace—and their two visions slowly come together in a completely nonsensical, nightmarish musical number where drugged out, crotch-thrusting rock performers are forces to perform with a number of very confused jazz musicians. Apparently, this is exactly what Danny had been dreaming of and he immediately wants to be business partners in a multimillion dollar venture with a young, broke artist with no job experience that he’s known for two days.

In a cruel twist of fate, we also discover that Kira is the same muse Danny had in his youth as a jazz clarinetist. But then she left him, causing him to give up his artistic dreams for a lucrative job in business. (In a rather sad sequence, Danny remembers his young life and dances with the ghost of her memory.) She appears again to Danny and recites the poem “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and convinces him to call the club… Xanadu.

NO, GENE KELLY, NO!

If it sounds like they just made a lot of this up as they went along, a number of cast and crew say that’s exactly what happened on set every day. (My favorite story from production details how producer Joel Silver actually kidnapped one of the writers and locked him in a hotel room for three days until he was happier with the script. Silver was fired and then later rehired on the project.) That’s might explain why XANADU doesn’t have much in the way of story or plot. The characters all meet each other, Kira inspires them to open a club, and they do just that.

The closest thing to conflict in XANADU is the undercooked romance between Kira and Sonny, which mostly consists of her rejecting his advances until she finally gives up. Of course, there’s the whole “she’s an actual Greek goddess” thing, which is easily and hilariously wrapped up by Sonny going to Olympus (by skating at top speed in to the mural) and talking Zeus and Hera into letting her go—mostly thanks to a heartfelt song by Kira that melts their icy mythological hearts.  

Xanadu spider woman
Sony’s MADAME WEB movie is exactly what you expect.

The rest of the movie is just a nonstop series of increasingly ridiculous musical numbers. There’s Kira and Danny tap dancing as ghosts from the 1940s, Kira and Sonny skating through the world’s cheapest soundstage, and an epic fashion montage where they force Gene Kelly to wear some truly hideous 80s outfits as creepy mannequins come to life and dance around him, including one that I can only describe as an androgynous goth spider. Hell, there’s even a random animated segment from the legendary Don Bluth, where Sonny and Kira turn in to various horny animals and try to resist banging each other onscreen. This cartoon seems random, even for this movie, and it’s all because ELO was mad that the song “Don’t Walk Away” didn’t make it in to the final film, so the studio just shoehorned it in via animation because it was cheaper and easier than doing reshoots with the cast.

But nothing holds a candle to the finale, where they celebrate opening night of the titular club. I have no idea how to describe the sheer lunacy you will witness here. There are juggling mimes, karate masters, punk rockers, flight attendants, mafia bosses, and circus performers—all in roller skates and all dancing and chanting “Xanadu! Xanadu!” as if they were in the world’s weirdest cult. And that’s before Kira makes her big appearance, at which point she leads the crowd in an even more confusing musical number involving Midwestern tapdancers, tiger-clad glam rockers, and fringy cowgirls until she achieves her final form as a being of pure disco light and makes everyone disappear. This entire sequence is, scientifically speaking, utterly bonkers, but at least  it gives us Olivia Newton-John in a gold jumpsuit, an image that will forever be burned in my mind.

Xanadu Olivia Newton John
RIP Olivia Newton-John. I will forever sing “Physical” at karaoke in your honor.

Even if you despise every other element of this movie, that’s the one reason to watch XANADU—Olivia Newton-John. With her effervescent smile and constant neon glow, she is the literal highlight of the film and makes the most out of a very thin, nebulous character. Kira is whimsical, fun and captivating to watch, even when everything else onscreen is exploding in disco nonsense. That ability to make such a big impact in her work, no matter the quality or infrequency, is a big reason why Olivia Newton-John is still so beloved by audiences and why she’ll be missed.

“BEST” PARTS

ENJOYABLENESS CONTINUUM

PLAY ALONG AT HOME!

Take a shot or drink every time:

  • Olivia Newton-John fades in or away
  • Screen legend Gene Kelly is forced to wear something especially ridiculous
  • Sonny’s coworker is a dick
  • Gene Kelly plays the clarinet

Double shot if:

  • There’s a cheesy transition between scenes

Seen a movie that should be featured on this column? Shoot Jason an email and give him an excuse to drink.


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