I go on and on all of the time about things from when I was a boy. That is natural. Hell, I will let you in on a little secret: we all go on and on, all of the time, about things from when we were boys or girls. Even the best of us. What makes the difference, as they say, is the nature of the things from when we were boys or girls that we go on and on about. So in the spirit of trying to take what little sunshine is left in me and do something with it, I am going to ramble a lot about one of the first films I saw when I was a little boy: Xanadu.
I am not going to lie to you. All of that guff you have heard about how Xanadu is so bad that it inspired the creation of the Razzie awards? It is all true. Films come and go all the time in which someone, somewhere down the line, colossally fukked up something or many somethings, with amusing results. Xanadu is an example of how much can get fukked up in a singular film.
Now, in order to understand what they get wrong in Xanadu, it is important to understand what they get right in Xanadu. The basic story is about a young artist who is struggling with the conflict between the need to follow one’s dreams and the need to do what is needed in order to eat. It is not really established all that well at first, but Sonny (Michael Beck) recently left a paying job in order to attempt to become a freelance artist. Problem is, finding jobs to pay the bills has proven so difficult that as the film opens, Sonny tears up a sketch and throws it away, remarking “guys like me shouldn’t dream anyway”. The scraps of paper drift through the air, as in high enough for multi-story rooftops to be visible in the shots, for pretty much the entire opening credit roll.
When these shreds of paper finally do land, they land at the end of a (seemingly) disused alley where someone who clearly has too much time on their hands has gone to the trouble of painting a mural. Said mural contains the visages of nine women in various poses. In the middle of this mural is the visage of one Olivia Newton-John. As with Michael Beck, she is one of the main stars of the film, and thus we will be seeing a lot of her. Unfortunately, her introduction does not really work that well for her. When the pieces of paper fall in front of the mural, we see one of the women in the mural emerge with an aura of light. Eight of these women emerge in a staggered pattern and engage in a dance that, whilst not quite what one would expect of someone like Alexander Gudonov, is clearly far too complex for Olivia Newton-John to participate in. The filmmakers try to cover this up by having the other women in this scene dance around Olivia, pick her up, carry her about, and so on. It does not work unless you are about as undiscriminating as a four year old tends to be.
Be that as it may, the dancing group breaks up after a couple of minutes and proceeds to run around town. We have already received one hint of the biggest problem with Xanadu. Now this sequence gives us another hint. Namely, the people making the film seem to have lost their sense of moderation and logic. The nine women run around the city with a number of special effects trailing them. Changes in their speed of movement, light trails, and so on make one wonder exactly where the hell the media or authorities were on that day. I am unsure of where the film is set, but given the beachside locations and seemingly endless availability of work in the entertainment industry of 1980, a highly idealised version of Los Angeles would be my first guess. Somehow, someone making the decisions on the production thought that things that resemble LSD effects happening around the city would go unnoticted. (The irony here being that the shots that do introduce Kira tend to do a far better job of making her out to be other-worldly than the cascade of special effects, anyway.)
Kira, the Olivia Newton-John character, crosses paths with Sonny whilst he is on one of his perpetual lunch breaks, and kisses him. This must be the Kiss Of Obssessive Mental Breakdown, because after this moment, Sonny begins to see Kira everywhere. Or more accurately, he sees her on an album cover that he has been assigned to paint an enlargement of. I cannot believe that I am actually saying that. You see, in this film’s conception of the music industry of 1980, the posters used to advertise albums are hand-painted by bored artists. So Sonny is told to paint this enormous version of the cover art in which Kira appears. Rather than get on with the work that will keep him doing that eating that he was having problems with at the beginning of the film, Sonny decides to instead go and investigate just who this 1980s model-like woman is.
It is worth noting that in another scene, Sonny is called into the office by the man he most immediately reports to, one Simpson (James Sloyan). Simpson gives Sonny a bit of a lecture about the reasons an employee follows orders and how that relates to the way a company is structured. This is supposed to be the big voicing of what Sonny is fighting against, like the stifling of his creative voice or the frustration of trying to keep himself fed and clothed whilst being a freelance artist. Thing is, Sloyan has the distinction of voicing one of the few examples of well-written dialogue in this mess. He starts out badly, talking about how he gave up art so he could get ahead and make something of himself (nobody gives up art unless they are totally devoid of emotions and sensations). But then he starts to talk about how a workplace where everybody just does whatever the hell they want when they want is not a company, it is just chaos. Well-written this dialogue is, but it undercuts the entire point of the scene. We are supposed to be getting an impression of why Sonny is off in search of a muse. Instead, the scene is making Sonny look like a petulant child. Simpson is making perfect sense and appears to be trying to gently guide Sonny towards a path that will at least get him more than reduced to janitorial work.
Now, before we go on, I will be going over some things that have been written about in other reviews. Others have written about Xanadu at length, and the problems with it tend to attract similar comment from all authors.
The third major character in Xanadu is an elderly jazz musician by the name of Danny McGuire. Danny is played by none other than Gene Kelly. This was the last feature film that Gene Kelly appeared in. Our first scene with Danny involves Sonny meeting him on the beach as he is playing his clarinet. You see, Danny was a clarinet player in one of those Big Band acts that went away after World War II. Although the Big Band style continues to this day, economics and the difficulty of organising a large group of musicians means that over the past six decades, interest in the Big Band style tends to at best be what the Wikipedia describes as sporadic. Danny’s role in the story is what a lot of Children Of The 1980s will understand when I call it the Miyagi role. And after a few conversations that probably made both Kelly and Beck wonder who the hell wrote this script, they end up in Danny’s house. Now, whilst we have not heard exactly how Danny sustains himself in the here and now, to say that this house looks far too well-appointed for a retired Big Band musician, especially one living in 1980, is an understatement. It looks more like the inside of a five-star hotel (which it may well have been). Danny shows Sonny the cover of a record on which Danny played back when he was young. And sure enough, there is a picture of a woman that looks exactly like Kira, unchanged even after the intervening time between the album’s recording and the film’s present day.
We are becoming convinced that Sonny needs his medication changed. But we follow him as he spends all that time he should be at work going to places like a run-down nightclub, meeting Kira, and having the idea to open a big roller-disco dancing club. Yup, that is the big inspired idea that he has had in order to drive the rest of the film. But anyway, Sonny and Danny go to the site that they will eventually christen Xanadu, where they have a bit of a discussion about the kind of music they anticipate putting on in the place for the entertainment of customers. Danny’s vision goes first, with a Big Band act that, although talented and impressive, also demonstrates that perhaps Danny should be looking into residential care rather than opening a roller-disco.
Sonny’s vision, whilst cheeseball and a product of 1980s pop-as-neutering culture, is at least a little more realistic. Said vision is represented by a performance by Electric Light Orchestra. Electric Light Orchestra‘s number in this scene resembles an attempt to fuse Black Sabbath with disco. To their credit, they succeed somewhat. More so than a lot of “artists” who tried to do the same thing during the 1980s. But the point of this scene is to “blend” the two styles, or eras (those being just after World War II and the beginnings of the Class War). The problem is that as the final shot of this sequence begins and the two bands slowly merge, blending the two musics that they are playing into one song. Maybe it is just the limited fidelities offered by the formats I have heard this final part of the sequence on (in order, VHS and DVD), but I can clearly hear one part of the number being changed abruptly to allow easier fusion with the other. No matter how one tries, one is going to overwhelm the other without one of them being heavily modified in order to fit, and unfortunately, the only real modification comes far too late in the game.
Unfortunately, this is the problem with Xanadu all over. Too many people who were in a position of decision-making used that power to throw shit into the mix without regard for how it would blend with the other shit. More on this in due course.
We have a number of sequences in which Sonny and Kira do the young couple in love thing. One of them is mildly stupid in plot terms. But after a few of these, we have a sequence in which Kira begins attempting to explain to Sonny that she is a muse. Actually, let me put that properly. She is a Muse, one of the nine Muses in Greek mythology who are basically goddesses charged with inspiring the lowly Humans in things like literature, science, and arts. Kira is supposed to be Terpsichore, the Muse of dance. Given that earlier scenes in the film establish that this Terpsichore’s ability to dance is only slightly better than that which Chris Bauer as Andy Bellefleur puts on in season two of True Blood, it is a little awkward. But as Sonny’s medication stops working again, all sorts of external oddities such as the television directly addressing him or a dictionary entry changing to directly address him take place. And then Kira vanishes in a blur of bad special effects.
This prompts a few scenes. Two of them are fairly reasonable. One of them is utterly retarded. I will go in order. The first scene involves Sonny moping on the same beach that he met Danny on. This is the closest that Xanadu comes to a great scene. The writing is actually pretty good here. Not great, but at least good enough for the actors involved to have something to work with. And work with it they do. Michael Beck works well in this scene because in spite of how his character has been written in a childish manner, even in this scene, he projects here in just the right way to sell it. Sonny is upset. The woman who has inspired him to do something other than wait to grow old and die has disappeared out of his life in circumstances that would prompt him to wonder if he is not having a serious neurochemical dysfunction. In similar circumstances, I would be upset and behaving in a slightly petulant manner, too.
So Danny, keeping up the well-constructed dialogue being delivered well thing, tells Sonny that he has to go out and do whatever it takes to get that muse back. Otherwise, Danny continues, Sonny is going to be sitting on the rock that Danny was sitting on thirty years from now. I hear him on that one. Thirty-two years have passed since Xanadu was released, and I am stuck on that rock. Anyway, this prompts a scene of Sonny skating around the neighbourhood, with an Electric Light Orchestra number titled The Fall as accompaniment. I do not normally go for high-pitched falsetto vocals, but the song itself perfectly syncs with the visuals. It is about how desperate Sonny is to get back what has kept him going for the past however many days we have seen in the film. So Sonny skates until he finds the mural that Kira and her fellow Muses emerged from and, after a few more shots to fill out the running time of the song, skates up to the mural at full pelt and leaps into it.
Thus begins the retarded scene from this trio. First, Sonny does not smack into the wall and end up having dreams of Muses whilst he is unconscious. But since the plot kind of requires that, we can overlook it for now. No, Sonny instead finds himself in a conception of… well, something mythological that looks like what a person high on LSD might think of whilst looking at the innards of an activated toaster. Very quickly, Sonny is caged in a rotating column of light-like energy whilst he calls out to Zeus, demanding an audience.
Unfortunately, the person who wrote the conversation between Sonny and Danny that took place minutes ago was absent when this one was written. We never actually see Zeus, but we hear a distinctly English voice, that of Wilfrid Hyde-White, representing him. “We don’t use those names anymore,” says Zeus, prompting queries about what we call him instead. Richard Face (yes, there really is a Jack Richard Face who was once a politician in Australia)? In any case, Zeus tells Sonny and thus the audience, it is him Sonny wants to talk to. The conversation that follows involves Sonny pleading that he and Kira are in love, and he wants her to be allowed to come out and be on Earth with him. But then Zeus asks what emotions are. Nope, not making that up. A woman we also never see but hear with a slight flange and reverb, Coral Browne, reminds the Zeus voice that they studied those things in some class once.
In Greek mythology, the gods have all of the same emotions, wants, desires, dreams, fears, and burdens that we mortals do. Only you know how the gods are frequently depicted as being so much bigger and bolder than we mortals are? Think of that size difference. That is how much larger the emotions et al of the Greek gods are writ. That is the Greek conception of what it means to be a god. Just looking in your average Greek mythology textbook could have told the screenwriters this. Nonetheless, the conversation ends with Sonny being told sorry, no dice by “Zeus” and being banished from wherever this sequence is. So then we get another song in which Olivia Newton-John sings about being stuck in stasis and such. So we end this scene with another conversation that makes the highest of the Greek gods out to be either idiots or senile, then we have the big climactic number.
Dear Odin above. You know what I have said a few times in this text now about how so much of everything and all else was thrown in with one another as the film was being made? This climactic roller-disco sequence is a perfect expression of that. George Lucas has clearly never seen this scene or learned from it, because the prequel trilogy’s battles and this climactic scene suffer exactly the same problem. But I digress. Eventually, after seemingly endless rollerskating dance sequences, we eventually get a sequence in which Kira sings. Kira singing in and of itself is not a bad thing. But much like the earlier sequence in which two bands are merged in a very haphazard way, the filmmakers cannot make up their mind which style of music Kira should deliver the ending in. But at the end of this genre-crossing performance, Kira and the eight women who dance around her, the other Muses, ascend to the “heavens” in another tacky negative-scratch special effect.
And as Sonny ends up in a conversation with a waitress who looks exactly like Kira, we mercifully get an end credits roll. Mercifully. Now, before we go any further, I will talk again about the three-act structure thing. We start by introducing our hero and setting him a goal. In the next step, we set barriers for him that prevent him from getting to his goal. Then we show how he overcomes those barriers. It is a fairly simple setup, but Xanadu never manages to really clearly do much of any of it. Sure, we have a hero in the form of Sonny, and Michael Beck makes him fairly likeable in spite of some incredibly awful writing. But we never get a clear idea of what he is up against. His own inertia is hardly a tangible antagonist, and one that only makes him less likeable. And if the antagonist is supposed to be the pressure on him to get a nine to five job and toe the line, well, the way that is set up makes him even less likeable. The resolution does not work, either. The club is going to open regardless of whether he turns up for opening night and all that, or so the film makes us believe. What does it matter if Kira is there or not? Sure, losing the person that inspires you at a critical moment hits us hard, but how one deals with it is what successful businesses are made of.
As I mentioned, this was Gene Kelly‘s last film. IMDB trivia has it that he only took the job because the locations that were being used in shooting were relatively close to his home, so the shoot would be relatively easy for him. Olivia Newton-John has said that new pages of script were being delivered to the set just as shooting was about to begin. And therein lies the problem. Whilst starting a film without a finished script is never a good thing, having your script change on a daily basis throughout principal photography is a recipe for disaster.
But Michael Beck has come off the worst here. He was not exactly an A-list star, but The Warriors had put him on the start of a path that might have taken him to being one. Unfortunately, the impact of Xanadu on his career did not just put an end to that. It pretty much put an end to his prospects in front of the camera forever. He has, of course, worked since, but in an era that gave us assholes like Tom Cruise, the fact that he was basically sidelined for one bad choice is a great injustice. But that was over thirty years ago now, and I think we can say it is way too late to do anything about these things now.
Anyway, if you have never seen Xanadu, then you have missed out. I have no idea when it will be out on Blu-ray Disc, but I can guarantee it will end up in my collection. Yes, it was reviled by critics and audiences alike when it was first released. Yes, John Wilson decided to create The Razzies after seeing it and Can’t Stop The Music on a 99-cent double-header. Yes, Universal Pictures took a bath on producing and distributing it. Yes, the soundtrack album ended up making more money, both in gross and net terms, than the film itself. But buried amongst the endless array of shitty decisions and poor storytelling skills, there is a good story.
But what the hell. I enjoyed watching it as a small boy, and I enjoy watching it as a tired wreck of a man. That makes it a pretty special film. Give it a look.
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