Xanadu has been a guilty pleasure of mine for years. It isn’t big on plot. Most of the acting is ho-hum. It just really isn’t that spectacular a movie, all things considered. You may be wondering why I am even bothering to review a less-than-stellar film that turns 35 tomorrow.
This film has three things going for it, however: music by Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), Olivia Newton-John singing, and Gene Kelly. I have been a fan of ELO for about 20 years now. For some reason, they never popped up on my radar before that, even though I listened to a lot of music back when they were big. They produced several songs used in Xanadu, and they enhanced the experience for me. The music was simply fantastic.
I am not a huge fan of Olivia Newton-John’s acting. I’ve seen clips of Grease, and I am not interested in seeing the full film. Other works in which I have seen her did not really catch my attention that much. In Xanadu, though, Newton-John is radiant in any scene in which she appears, and she has a fabulous smile. Her voice is captivating and perfect for the role of the Muse, Terpsichore (though she is inexplicably called “Kira” throughout most of the film). Even in the bizarrely mishmashed and long end sequence, she did an amazing job showcasing her musical and dancing versatility.
One of the biggest treats of the film, however, is Gene Kelly in his last feature film role before his death. Interestingly, his role as Danny McGuire is a reference to his role of the same name in the 1944 film, Cover Girl. Many people see it as the same character, since the 1944 character owned a nightclub and the 1980 character talks about making it big as a nightclub owner years before.
Kelly was a breath of fresh air in Xanadu, bringing a confidence to his role that was severely lacking in his costar, Michael Beck. He improved every scene he was in, and he even looked good in most of the weird costumes he tried on during one scene. The costumer designer seemed to have raided just about every costume closet from the last 60-70 years of the 20th century. And who knew Kelly could rollerskate?
Michael Beck plays the alleged “main” character, Sonny Malone, with whom Newton-John’s character falls in love. Beck’s acting was simply flat and unrealistic. He had some of the worst lines in the film, making him sound like a kid in the 1950s half the time. Perhaps the writers were trying to make the film have a “nostalgic” feel; if so, it failed miserably.
One of the most fun sequences in Xanadu was the brief animation, done to the song, “Don’t Walk Away” from ELO. The animation was done by veteran animator Don Bluth, known to most as the the director of the excellent film, The Secret of NIMH. Sonny and Kira are transformed into animated characters who change into various animal pairs while dancing around the screen. This is definitely worth it, since where else are you going to see a bird wearing leg warmers? Life changing event, that!
In the end, though, the highlights were not enough to to rescue the film from poor acting, bad direction, and an awful script. It will continue to be a guilty pleasure, though, for the positive reasons outlined above. I will continue to enjoy the amazing soundtrack on a regular basis, and I will watch Xanadu every now and then as well. Go on, give in to your inner love of Newton-John and ELO. You know you want to.
Release Date: August 8, 1980 (USA)
MPAA Rating: PG
Alcohol/Drugs: 1 (some social drinking)
Language: 1 (occasional minor, deity)
Nudity: 1 (brief scene showing dressing room doors painted with art deco nudes)
Sexuality: 2 (slinky behavior in a couple scenes, brief risqué photo shoot)