Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.
Top ten reasons you might not like the 1980s classic Xanadu:
- It’s a musical.
- There’s no gang warfare.
- It’s got disco music.
- It’s got rollerskating.
- It’s got a guy rollerskating in short shorts.
- It only has one Gene Kelly dance number.
- There’s no Shake Shack.
- The special effects are not anywhere close to state-of-the-art (even for 1980).
- There’s only one Don Bluth animated sequence.
- There are fewer than three minutes of conflict in the whole film.
Your mileage will, of course, vary. What struck me on my recent re-watch was the disappointing lack of conflict in the film: Xanadu is the antithesis of conflict. This is epitomized in a scene toward the end of the film when Sonny approaches the gods to ask if Kira can stay with him. They say no, and send him back to Earth. Then they decide they were a bit too hasty. Poof, Kira gets to go to the opening of the club, Xanadu, where she proceeds to sing and dance to a hodgepodge of music styles, all backed by a funky disco beat (even the country tune). It would be like a sitcom’s version of conflict except that the writers don’t bother to introduce the mistaken assumptions leading to the conflict. They skip right to the part where they turn to the camera and offer an “oh well” shrug. What I’m trying to say is that is this is a very fluffy film: Xanadu is marshmallow fluff, mixed with a hint of Nutella to make it extra sweet.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The film was originally going to be a straight-up roller-boogie film, but when Olivia Newton-John expressed interest, the script changed, and the budget got bigger. Then, when Gene Kelly signed on, the producers subtracted plot points to make room for the music and dance numbers. The funny thing is, Kelly didn’t even want to do a dance number: his routine got added at the last minute when he reluctantly agreed to do one number with Newton-John. So, if you’re looking for more Gene Kelly dances, look elsewhere because this film only has one. Kelly does, however, bring a big touch of class to the proceedings. And, even though there are no Shake Shack–type scenes (a.k.a. “You’re the One That I Want” from Grease), Newton-John offers viewers eye candy and her trademark voice. The film was a failure at the box office, but thanks to Grease, Newton-John was unstoppable on the soundtrack: Xanadu gave her three Top 20 singles, including “Magic,” “Suddenly,” and the title track, “Xanadu.” Even better, Jeff Lynne and Electric Light Orchestra gave a much rockier vibe to the rest of the soundtrack, scoring two more Top-20 singles with “All Over the World” and “I’m Alive.”
There are a lot of neon special effects: swipes and wavy lines indicate movement, a wispy substitute for what roller skating supposedly felt like in the early ’80s. Roller skates had been around for decades but became a huge fad again at this time. For some reason, short shorts also trended for both guys and girls. Xanadu took roller skates, short shorts, disco, and the decade’s hippy feel-good mentality and squished them all into one movie. Fads, unfortunately, cycle through pop culture pretty fast: by the time the movie released, they’d all passed their expiration date. This is what makes it a cult film: it’s so earnest in wanting to be a feel-good movie that it almost succeeds in spite of its shortcomings.
Don Bluth contributed an animated sequence to the film. (This was a few years before he hit it big with The Secret of NIMH, but he had been an animator with Disney since the ’50s and had contributed direction to the animated sequences in the underrated Pete’s Dragon, soon to be released in a long line of Disney remakes). The animation in Xanadu is frothy (and shows Kira and Sonny changing into different animals) but definitely has that signature Bluth look. The director, Robert Greenwald, nails the laid-back vibe of the film, but, unfortunately, doesn’t have an eye for staging and filming musical numbers. The final club scene is a lost opportunity to showcase the choreography and costumes. There’s a great moment in the behind-the-scenes shots (found on the DVD and Blu-ray releases) in which one of the dancers describes his risky dancing on a tightrope six feet up in the air, but they could have easily put the rope at only one foot high since the camera didn’t show perspective at all well.
The film does revolve around the lead character, Sonny (played by Michael Beck), but he doesn’t sing or dance so he generally takes a backseat to Kelly and Newton-John’s musical numbers. That’s okay because Sonny doesn’t amount to much more than his short shorts. I recommend pretending that he’s playing his character from The Warriors, Swan, especially in the final Xanadu club scene in which everyone appears in themed costumes. Picture all the different gangs from The Warriors in this scene, and tell me with a straight face that this didn’t make you giggle.
Xanadu is a bad film in almost every sense of the word. However, if you’re looking for a cult classic with no antagonism and plenty of earnestness, this could be the film to put a smile on your face. Plus, it’s one final chance to see the grace and ease that Gene Kelly brought to the screen. That’s a wonderful thing.
This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.
If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.