Xanadu ★★★

One of several movies made in 1979/80 that attempted to capitalize on the super hot (and, as it turned out, super fleeting) trend of roller disco, Xanadu continues to endure like those others thanks to it being a relic of a weird and specific time in pop culture. Yet there are elements of it that make it stand above the other examples of that weird fad—certainly the involvement of major talents like Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly and Electric Light Orchestra lend it a prestige that the other roller disco films don’t have. I’d argue that the main leg up Xanadu has on its competition is that it’s so close to being genuinely good. 

First and foremost, the film’s songs are fantastic, and the best ambassador for the movie itself as well as its thematic aims. It’s an intentional melange of classic big band musical, roller disco-ready rock, ELO’s Beatles-tinged dad rock, the soft pop that Newton-John was a queen of at the time, and even some R&B and country. The movie’s thematic aim is to celebrate imagination and inspiration in all its forms, from music to dance to painting to architecture, a “follow-your-dreams” parable that sees Newton-John playing a literal mythic Muse. Director Robert Greenwald chooses to unify the aesthetic of the movie in a trippy, neon-soaked optical effects landscape, making the entire film feel like one long night at the titular nightclub and lending it its own warped reality. 

The sad thing is that the aesthetic is the only element Greenwald manages to successfully unify. The script, which is credited to two writers but actually went through dozens of drafts, is still an unfinished document, a series of setpieces and production numbers begging for coherence. That coherence never comes (unlike in the film’s best number, which sees a Newton-John voiced Andrews Sisters-esque  40’s big band literally merging with a ‘70s rock group, The Tubes)—the stakes for the characters are never deeply felt, despite a lot of mumbo jumbo about the Muse Kira being forbidden from falling in love and Kelly’s Danny wishing to reclaim his glory days as a club owner. Sonny (played by a woefully miscast Michael Beck, trying to inject his character with some misplaced Methody realness) always seems uncomfortable and out of place, his interest in creating Xanadu and his relationship with Kira more perfunctory than anything else. Greenwald, for his part, can’t seem to capitalize on the film’s fantastic soundtrack, shooting the musical numbers in ways that lessen rather than heighten their impact (why, for instance, do Sonny and Kira merely skate around a bland soundstage filled with not-so-amusing pieces of sets while a song plays in the background, when they could be “singing” it to each other?) Xanadu, put simply, has no core, no kernel of truth to hang onto, and as a result becomes little more than a bunch of empty costumes without a person to fill them out. 

But damn, are those costumes pretty. Xanadu is a film best taken as a precursor to the MTV era, as each song by itself makes for a pretty handsome proto-music video. It’s the kind of cult film that means more the more you personally bring to it—that’s not how a good film should work, of course, but it’s still a valid reason for people to love it. It’s a shame that the movie leaves so many set-ups unpaid, like Danny’s past relationship with a prior incarnation of Kira, or just what is going on between Kira and Sonny (their best scene, where Kira playfully reveals her true nature to Sonny, is a delightful one that indicates what the movie could’ve been had it paid more attention to their relationship rather than taking it for granted). At least the odd bifurcated nature of the soundtrack has a pay off, as the merging of Newton-John and ELO occurs during the climactic title track, emulating sonically what the Tubes/‘40s band number did visually. Xanadu is a paean to imagination, a film filled with great visuals and ideas that can’t quite find purchase. It’s a curious artifact of a time and place that’s both eternal and incredibly specific, a nostalgia for a world that never truly existed, save for in the imagination.

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