One of the most guileless and gutless movie musicals ever made, director, Robert Greenwald’s Xanadu (1980) has two pop chart-topping singles from Olivia Newton-John (then, one of the hottest properties in town), a killer score by ELO, featuring British punk band, The Tubes, and the services of veteran musical/comedy star, Gene Kelly to recommend it. Kelly again plays a character named Danny McGuire, first – and more aptly suited to 1944’s Cover Girl, co-starring Rita Hayworth. But this is where any similarities to that earlier Technicolor charmer and Xanadu abruptly end. That it should have all turned to dreck almost from the moment the ink on Kelly’s contract dried and the Universal logo appears on the screen is less of a mystery when considering Greenwald began the picture under great personal objections and duress with only a 45 page (choke!) outline, mangled by Richard Christian Danus and Marc Reid Rubel who likely fancy themselves screenwriters; an oversight from which the movie never recovers. Greenwald was forced to ‘work around’ the lack of script and craft some memorable musical numbers instead while, presumably, more pages of dialogue were being written. Alas, this never happened; Greenwald and his cast ‘winging it’ with a disastrous amount of adlib; editor, Dennis Virkler cutting together the whole thing as though it was an extended MTV music video (and this, a full year before MTV even had its debut!).
Viewing Xanadu today, one is immediately reminded of everything that was wrong with the picture-making biz back in 1980; big corporate takeovers and mergers picking apart once iconic movie studios for a song and almost immediately breaking their assets down to bedrock; their back lots demolished, the front offices ransacked by bean-counting executives interested only in pure profit and the occasional ‘clever’ market strategy to begrudgingly produce – an oxymoron if ever one existed. Of course, Xanadu derives its namesake from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, Kubla Khan, a few lines actually surviving this deluge, recited with deadpan boredom by Olivia Newton-John inside a darkened sound stage moments before it begins to pulsate with the artificial life of a moonlit cosmopolitan diorama, inflatable plastic palms and burlap tarp to mimic sand, and finally, a mock-up of an advancing locomotive with enough faux steam emanating from a bar of jets at floor level to obliterate almost everything in the background. Xanadu isn’t a musical, per say, so much as it serves as one extended commercial endorsement to save the Pan-Pacific Auditorium from the wrecking ball; a spectacularly styled art deco pavilion made derelict by 1972, but having entered into the National Register of Historic Places two years before Xanadu’s shoot, only to be destroyed by fire eleven years later.
Somewhere along the way, producers decided Xanadu would greatly benefit from an animated sequence; veteran Disney animator – newly released from his contract and freelancing – Don Bluth, seconded to the cause of coming up with ‘something’ to fill run time for the number, ‘Don’t Walk Away’. Bluth’s shape-shifting parody, whereby Newton-John’s muse, Kiera and her earthly paramour, Sonny Malone (the lethally stick-figured Michael Beck) morph into all manner of animal, from bird to fish to two lonely nymphs emerging from a newly unfurled rosebud; okay…just a little too ‘Secret of Nimh’ for me, was as ill-conceived and pointless as the rest of the vignettes. But worst of all are the musical sequences underutilizing Gene Kelly; neither as light nor as fantastic as he once had been, but making the most to hark back to an era he knows and loves so well; his pas deux with Olivia Newton-John, tripped to ‘Whenever You’re Away From Me’ becoming the singularly fluffy and familiar Kelly-esque homage to better work done elsewhere in his cannon of classic movie musicals.
In the late seventies and early eighties it became something of ‘a thing’ to attempt an ole-styled studio musical, but without the benefit of actors who could sing or dance, or a skilled choreographer laying the meticulous and necessary groundwork, or even, virtually any craftsmen working behind the camera with the good sense God gave a lemon to know exactly how a good dance sequence ought to be staged on film. Kelly and Newton-John’s pas deux aside, virtually every song in Xanadu is a noisy mess with choppy edits and too many close-ups to defer from the fact nothing is going on below the waist, not even a little hip-swiveling in most cases; everything overly saturated in a barrage of truly pedestrian special effects and framed in ominously glowing roto-scoped halos, drenched in a staggering array of disparately culled rainbow hues. I am not sure what to make of costume designer, Bobbie Mannix’s tacky assault on the senses, given full and unadulterated flourish in ‘All Around the World’, as Gene Kelly gets paraded about in a pantheon of gaudy and effete fashions that vaguely suggest he might be on the verge of being pimped out in Pasadena. Xanadu’s musicals sequences are a disastrous hodgepodge of the old and new; ranking somewhere between poor to very bad taste and lacking in any judgement call that might have added at least avant-garde artistic cache to the milieu, with zero continuity to make any of it stick besides.
Gene Kelly, who had initially approved of producer, Lawrence Gordon’s ‘high concept’ for a loose musical/fantasy/comedy remake of 1947’s Down to Earth – in which the elegant Rita Hayworth once played the Grecian muse, Terpsichore, was to regret his decision to partake in Xanadu almost from the outset; the picture’s irreconcilable super-kitsch culture clash of 80’s pop and vintage 40’s glam-bam dissolving like a sugar cube dipped in tie-dyed acid. Kelly initially told Gordon he would appear in the picture but wouldn’t dance. What?!? Gordon’s pitch inevitably changed Kelly’s mind. However, only after much consternation and cajoling was Kelly to commit to the romantic pas deux with Newton-John, photographed months after the picture had already wrapped, and under stipulations imposed by Kelly, to have the sequence photographed his way and under controlled lighting conditions on a sound stage. ‘Whenever You’re Away From Me’ is a flat-footed throwback to Kelly’s halcyon days as MGM’s numero uno dance man; Kelly – either from age or simply because he realizes he is no longer partnered up with Cyd Charisse – merely going through the motions of a soft shoe gavotte, twirling his co-star with lugubrious ennui as he pines for the memories no longer tangibly at his disposal.
It might help the casual viewer of this rapturous misfire to first consider Larry Gordon’s initial interest in Xanadu never went beyond higher aspirations than to capitalize on the then roller-disco craze sweeping the nation. Alas, this simple-minded one hit wonder was met with even more obtuse enthusiasm from the regime then in charge at Universal, inexplicably and misguidedly believing they suddenly had another big movie musical on their hands: this, in an era when big movie musicals in general had fallen out of favor and remained unlikely to return to the pantheon as pop culture moneymakers. But why quibble about reality when there’s Xanadu; and a sort of precedent for rock/pop operas, set forth by the semi-profitable Tommy (1975) and, only two years after Xanadu, the infinitely more successful, Pink Floyd’s The Wall. It’s a little rough to condemn Gordon outright for his binge into pop-u-tainment; especially since with a little bit more luck and a hell of a lot more good sense, Xanadu might just as easily have been one for the ages – those ages being 15 to 18 or thereabouts.
Xanadu opens with a phantasmagoric prologue: the muses, bedecked and bedazzled in diaphanous gowns that vaguely look like castoffs from the Home Shopping Network – complete with roller skates and legwarmers – leaping off a giant billboard in Venice Beach to begin their streak across the California landscape, destined to inspire great things from unsuspecting mere mortals. One of these is Sonny Malone, a talented artist who paints wall-sized recreations of album covers to hang in record stores for no-talent hack and AirFlo Records impresario, Simpson (James Sloyan); one of these pimped and perfumed Simon Legree-types who cannot bear to admit he needs a gutsy talent like Malone to make his meager enterprise click. Sonny left Simpson’s employ once before to strike out on his own as a ‘real artist’. It didn’t stick, however, and so he has come back into the fold, twice as cocky, but half as smart – repeatedly threatening to quit or be fired. In between swapping barbs with his boss, Sonny frequents Venice Beach and the Santa Monica Pier; shocked to discover Kiera, who roller skates past him with a brief pause to plant a kiss on his lips before disappearing into thin air. Returning to the studio, Sonny realizes the girl on the cover of the latest album assigned for him to recreate and the girl who tongued him in the park are one in the same. It’s kismet. Sonny has to find out who she is. So he spends the first half hour of Xanadu running around the beach hoping to bump into Kiera again. Instead, he meets Danny McGuire, a retired clarinetist playing a few sour notes on a rock overlooking the swells and beach bunnies. Danny and Sonny famously hit it off over their mutual love of Glenn Miller; enough for Danny to invite Sonny back to his place for a drink. Quite a pad our Danny has; early French provincial with every bit of swank built into it that money can buy. Sonny’s impressed. It turns out Danny once had a dream of hitting the big time. He even played clarinet for Miller’s orchestra in the forties before surrendering his dream to his late father’s wishes and inheriting the family’s construction business. There really is no point to any of this, except to create a flimsy bridge into the flashback ‘Whenever You’re Away from Me’; Danny, in typical Gene Kelly/An American In Paris fashion, imagining he is back in the forties with Olivia Newton-John dressed as a WAC, joining him for a song and dance.
Not long thereafter, Sonny encounters Kiera again, stealing a bicycle to pursue her. He loses direction along the way, but alas, not enough steam as he plows through the guardrail and plummets head over heels off the Santa Monica Pier and into the roaring surf far below. Coincidentally, Danny witnesses the whole thing and helps to fish his new buddy out of the drink. Danny’s an old campaigner where women are concerned. He once had a muse very much like Kiera; a girl he ought to have married but instead gave up along with his promising music career to become the fat cat construction company manager instead. Sonny encourages Danny to dream big again, the two eventually finding their way to the abandoned and boarded up Pan-American Auditorium. Earlier, Sonny tailed Kiera to this burnt out shell of a pleasure palace, quietly observing as she skated in and out of the shadows; seemingly appearing, then disappearing beyond the dimly lit recesses. Now, Sonny makes a pitch for Danny to buy up the place and transform it into Xanadu – a nightclub with infinite possibilities, melding the past with the present.
For a successful businessman, Danny is uncharacteristically naïve. After yet another imagined dream sequence that brings together a forties pastiche to the Andrews Sisters with a bloated and spandex-laden cacophony of noise provided by The Tubes, Danny immediately sees the possibilities and sets about transforming the Pan-American into Xanadu. Meanwhile, the romance between Kiera and Sonny heats up – though never to anything beyond a slow sizzle. He takes her on a tour of the recording facilities; the two monkeying around on various sets before finding themselves locked in an embrace at the Hollywood Bowl that ends with a decided thud when Kiera informs Sonny she cannot remain at his side, even as he is on the cusp of realizing his dream of being a true artist. The reason? Well, Kiera is a muse – not a creature of flesh and blood. She belongs to the gods and proves it by channeling her powers to show Sonny how she can move heaven and earth with a flick of her finger; the characters in a B&W movie playing on his TV set suddenly engaging in a conversation with him. Sonny is disenchanted. He can’t give Kiera up. The two make love. But by morning’s first light, Kiera is gone.
Sonny returns to Venice Beach and the giant billboard depicting the muses. On a leap of faith, he roller skates through the billboard and into an alternative universe where Kiera is waiting to serenade him. Her ethereal parents (the never seen Wilfred Hyde-White and Coral Browne) suggest no good can come of their star-crossed love. Kiera is a goddess; Sonny, just a guy with torn blue jeans and a million dollar dream wrapped inside a twenty dollar bill. Thwarted in his desire to rescue Kiera from this netherworld, Sonny returns to his own time and Xanadu. Serving as master of ceremonies, Danny leads an entourage of roller skaters, dancers, and circus performers into the grand finale; the inaugural night at his posh club where, miraculously, Kiera resurfaces along with the rest of the muses to sing the title song. Afterward, she – along with all of the A-list guests invited for the opening – suddenly and inexplicably disappears into thin air, leaving Sonny along and even more disillusioned. I suppose continuity isn’t really director, Greenwald’s thing, because in the next moment, Xanadu is filled to maximum capacity with revelers again; Danny encouraging Sonny to sit back and have a drink to clear his mind. Sonny initially refuses, but then looks up and into the eyes of the waitress patiently standing nearby. It’s Kiera…or is it? The two begin a conversation that fades away as the movie’s title song begins to play again.
Xanadu is so mindlessly conceived, so thoughtlessly slapped together, and so ridiculously void of any purpose other than to frustrate, the fact it exists at all is cause enough to scratch the ole noggin. That it should find its way to Blu-ray ahead of more worthy deep catalog titles from Universal still MIA is an even bigger mystery – and worse – in a 1080p transfer that is about as unappealing as the movie itself. Universal has advertised this one as sporting “HD Picture and Theatre Quality Sound”. I suppose I should have read between the lines. There is virtually nothing on the back wrapper to suggest a digital clean-up or restoration has been conducted before slapping this catalog title to disc, and absolutely nothing about this hi-def transfer to make me recommend it to you. Not only does the picture frequently appear to be wildly out of focus – and no, I am not referring herein to Victor J. Kemper’s soft-focus cinematography – but a residual blurriness that renders a good deal of the image a muddy mess; but fine detail is all but vanquished except in close-up. Culled from a Technicolor print, the colors herein are muddy and dull – mostly. Contrast is weak, while film grain is all over the place; dense and unappealing to the nth degree.
Now, granted, a goodly number of shots in this movie are duped to incorporate in-camera SFX which naturally exaggerates grain structure. But even so, Xanadu’s image looks as though it were fed through a meat grinder – twice! I had great hopes Universal had set aside those bygone days of lackluster and digitally manipulated transfers that once branded their HD efforts the bottom of the barrel. But like the recent release of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, there is mild instability and gate weave built into this source material – easily correctible with today’s digital wizardry – but not performed herein. The 5.1 DTS fairs considerably better. Again, I wish I could instill the concept into studio executives that movies need to ‘look’ as good as they ‘sound’ on Blu-ray in order to appeal. If you're not going to bother fixing uo the imperfections to get a title ready for release, please - don't bother releasing it at all! Xanadu sounds pretty snappy but it looks like badly battered crap – period. It appears Universal spent something on a ‘making of’ featurette culling together some of the cast – minus its stars – plus a lot of fans, who have gathered to extol what they perceive as the virtues of the picture; all except for Gene Kelly’s surviving spouse, Patricia Ward, who openly and with great class, admits “It didn’t work!” – an understatement, to say the least. Bottom line: pass and be extremely glad that you did!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)