Xanadu is the story of Sonny, a young artist struggling to find meaning in his art, while also paying the bills. Kira, played by Olivia Newton-John, is a muse who comes to life and roller skates her way into Sonny’s life, inspiring him and his new friend, Danny (played by Gene Kelly) to open the nightclub, Xanadu.
This iconic, yet overwhelming panned, film earned its criticism. The only thing worse than the dialogue was the acting of lead character, Sonny. So bad, in fact, that a double feature of Xanadu and Can’t Stop the Music (staring Bruce Jenner) was the inspiration for the first annual Razzie Awards, in 1981, with Michael Beck (Sonny) receiving the first ever nomination for Worst Actor. (He was beat out by Neil Diamond in The Jazz Singer.)
But, wait! That’s not all!
Before we toss this movie to the celluloid trash heap, there’s a benefit to watching it, 30 years later, with the hindsight of all things 80s.
The soundtrack of this album is as good as the movie itself is bad. It was a time, musically, when we were between disco and MTV and this soundtrack wonderfully bridges both eras. When the LP was released, side A contained the songs of Olivia Newton John (including duets with Gene Kelly and Cliff Richard) and the Tubes. Side B held the songs of Electric Light Orchestra (ELO). The album received critical acclaim and went double platinum in the US and Canada.
The soundtrack, in turn, inspired a 2007 Broadway production of Xanadu that received 4 Tony nominations including one for Best Musical and one for Best Book (which means someone reworked the awful original screenplay.) The New Yorker reviewed the play saying,
“probably the most fun you’ll have on Broadway this season, one reason being that everything about it is so resolutely anti-Broadway.”
Gene Kelly’s performance as Danny, Sonny’s friend/mentor, looking ever so handsome in his late 60s, was a pleasant surprise. It’s a true test of an actor when he can make bad dialogue sound good. He seemed so sincere in the film. It was a joy to watch him act and dance with passion and skill. He just seemed to be having fun.
Finally, you cannot watch this film (well, I couldn’t anyway) without seeing Kenny Ortega’s name all over it. If you’re not familiar with Mr. Ortega, he’s one of the best known choreographers around, having done Dirty Dancing, all of the High School Musical movies, and Michael Jackson’s ill-fated ‘This is It” tour. Xanadu, his first film, is filled with BIG, colorful, in-your-face dance numbers that came to be commonplace in the still-to-come era of MTV. Think Pat Benetar’s “Love is a Battlefield” or Janet Jackson’s “Nasty Boys” (although neither were Ortega’s work.) We all had to start somewhere and fortunately, for most of us, our early “works” aren’t captured for the world to hold in posterity. But how much fun is it to go back and see accomplished performers in the early days of their careers? He was clearly a gifted choreographer and he lent some much needed talent to this film.
Xanadu was a big, bold mash up of 80s fashion, ‘Thriller”-type group dance scenes, and a lovely Olivia Newton-John on roller skates all wrapped up in a chart-busting soundtrack. Although we couldn’t know it at the time, it was giving us a sneak peek into a decade that would forever change our expectations of music and movies.