Xanadu

Xanadu ★½

A notorious flop in its day, Xanadu is firmly an artefact of the late 70s what with its gaudy fashions, dodgy PowerPoint-esque scene transitions and the fact that roller-skating seems to be one of the only methods of transport in this world (I don’t know if anyone ever kept a tally, but this probably holds some kind of record for it in one movie, like the scene where—for some reason—rather than getting in a car that’s giving him a lift Michael Beck’s character just holds onto the back and skates along behind it).

There’s a real time capsule vibe here, combined with a nostalgia for the recent past popular in many movies of the era, mixing then-contemporary styles with a 40s sensibility in flashback scenes to try for the best of both worlds, but despite taking a big swing a lot of the time I just don’t think the finished product ever quite gels.

It’s telling that the corresponding soundtrack made far more than the film itself ever did, as this is really just a string of music videos for Jeff Lynne’s compositions above all else, strung together by an incredibly flimsy plot which—even with all those interruptions—barely sustains itself over the runtime.

While featuring some genuinely great songs, the problem is (as several of them aren’t actually sung onscreen) these sequences are mainly just made up of performers dancing to a backing track most of the time; this means quite a lot of the musical moments often drag a fair amount, especially when the characters around them feel so two dimensional to begin with.

Playing an artist inspired by his muse to build a roller disco (?), Beck leads at the centre of it all, but unfortunately has all the charisma of a plank of wood here, his stiff performance along with some fairly limited characterisation writing-wise making Sonny a bit of a blank slate (despite how everyone else in the film seems to react to him).

This ended up being one of his last films, and also stands as the final screen appearance (outside of a few documentaries) of Gene Kelly; the musical icon doesn’t get much to work with here (as the script is so awkwardly written it makes everybody—veteran or not—sound like an automaton), but even so does his best in a game performance playing a former big band leader who fell for Kira (Olivia Newton-John) as a young man when she acted as his muse back in the 40s.

I think that idea of someone pining for the love that inspired them decades before is worthy of a film in itself, and the fantasy sequence where Kelly and Newton-John dance together once again after all those years is incredibly cute (the former—even when pushing 70–displaying his legendary musical talents one more time), but the rest of the runtime is just unfortunately just not up to snuff in comparison, taken up by long stretches of bizarrely random fever dream-esque sequences where nothing much really happens.

Even then, I think the film’s worst crime is how little it gives ostensible lead Olivia Newton-John; as a Greek muse all ONJ mostly has to do is skate around and/or look dreamily at Beck, which seems a real waste of her talents, though this definitely comes alive whenever she’s given the chance to sing. 

That’s especially true of the title number near the end, which is brought to life thanks to the star’s natural presence, but these rare bits that do work are hampered by how inane long stretches of the vast majority feel, often focusing on the least interesting aspects (like Beck’s rather dull character) without playing to its strengths.

The finished product was apparently messed about with a lot in both the writing and editing process, which definitely makes a lot of sense as it’s all a bit of a mess really, ending up having  some fun moments in what amounts to a good natured but mostly all over the place package overall.

Xanadu
is worth watching for Olivia Newton-John’s songs, but sadly the rest…not so much: it feels like the makers threw everything at the wall to see what would stick and yet nothing really does, so while this does have a lot of camp value, especially from some of the weirder creative decisions (like having Gene Kelly dance inside a giant pinball machine, which is pretty fun but certainly a choice), it unfortunately just isn’t very good as an actual movie.

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