Sunday, January 10, 2010

Xanadu - through caverns measureless to man

For Christmas this year, I got my wife a couple of musicals. And one of them was Xanadu. I saw that back in 1980 when it came out, and it would seem that I had managed to block out much of this movie.

It's somewhat sad that the best part of the DVD are the "Making of" documentary and the fact that the soundtrack is included on a separate CD. The soundtrack is amazing, and, in its late-70's way, fully worth the price of admission (the price of admission, of course, is sitting through the entire hour-and-a-half of this movie).

As the wretched excess and self-inflicted humiliation of the Saturday Night Fever 70s slowly gave way to the wretched excess and self-absorbtion of the Gordon Gekko 80s, Xanadu burst forth upon the public much like a tapeworm might quietly slip through an unpuckered sphincter.

This was not originally planned as a piece of classic cinema. And god knows that, in the end, they succeeded at that.

This had originally been planned as a small roller-disco movie. And the producer realized that there was a lot that was wrong with the film, like the fact that there wasn't a plot. But before they managed to fix that little problem, Olivia Newton John, coming off the success of Grease two years before, expressed an interest in being part of the movie.

Olivia Newton-John was born in 1948 in Cambridge, England, the daughter of a Welshman named Brinley Newton-John, an MI-5 officer on the Enigma project in WWII, and a German mother, Irene Born, the eldest child of the Nobel prize-winning atomic physicist Max Born. (Which brings a certain humor to her 1980's nickname, "Olivia Neutron Bomb.")

She had a career as a squeaky-clean country-pop singer; she'd had a couple of minor hits in the UK, USA and Australia (the chief being 1973's Let Me Be There, which earned her a Grammy as Best Country Female and the number one Country Album for two weeks that year). Then, in 1974, she represented England in the Eurovision song contest, singing a ditty that she later said she hated, called Long Live Love.

She placed #4, behind a little group named ABBA singing Waterloo.

She had a string of hits in the mid-70s, but they started to wane by 1977, so, at the age of 29, she starred as a high-school senior in the film adaptation of the Broadway musical Grease. The movie revived a flagging career, and spurred her to change her image to something a little less virginal. None of which explains her appearance as the slightly ethereal Kira (which doesn't strike me as the perfect nickname for "Terpsichore" - of course, she's a singer playing the muse of dance, so what do you want? Consistency?)

Gene Kelly does a reasonably good job with his part as a former (and soon-to-be-again) nightclub owner. After him, the next best acting job came from Newton-John (whose part consists primarily of smiling and skating out of frame while glowing in various colors), and then the bar is lowered considerably - many of the fine performances in this film are at roughly the "high school play" level. If that good.

The romantic "lead" is turned in by a wooden Michael Beck, also known for the cult film The Warriors (if by "cult film," you mean "almost as bad as Xanadu." He is, in fact, quoted as having said "The Warriors opened a lot of doors in film for me, which Xanadu then closed.")

This film had more wrong with it than it got right. The first time you see Gene Kelly, he's on the beach playing his clarinet as the sun rises over the Pacific Ocean (think about that for a second - here's a hint: "the sun rises in the...").

You occasionally come across a description of this film as an unofficial sequel to 1944's Cover Girl, in that Gene Kelly played a nightclub owner in 1944 named Danny McGuire, and in 1980 played a former nightclub owner named Danny McGuire. But they have to say "unofficial," because that's the extent of the similarity (and, of course, because the makers of Xanadu didn't have the rights to the infinitely better film).

As I mentioned earlier, the director knew that the script had a lot of problems. And after a number of rewrites, he got it back and realized that they still hadn't fixed those same problems. So he decided to make it a series of music videos, loosely strung together with what the porn industry calls "fast-forwards."

(Let me just say here that the "fast-forwards" line is my wife's joke. You all think she's such a nice, quiet, cultured person just because she sings opera. And, admittedly, because she's a really nice person. But there's this dark side that you just don't get to see, and it really isn't that far under the surface, either...)

Easily the best part of the movie is a piece called Dancin', blending songs in the styles of the '40s and the '80s into a gloriously Frankenstinian whole.

(This was a "live" version produced to promote the movie, and doesn't have the visual impact of the actual movie clip; that can be seen here, along with the label "embedding disabled by request.")

The 80's band in Dancin' is played by The Tubes, who were up until then known for lead singer Fee Waybill donning the persona of "Quay Lewd" to fight his way through songs like White Punks on Dope.

The Tubes were some of the only performers whose career wasn't stunted by Xanadu. One of the dancers, for example, an anonymous muse played by the Fosse-trained Sandahl Bergman, would stop dancing entirely, play opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in the notably-bad Conan the Barbarian (where she had to do her own stunts, because they couldn't find a 5'10" stunt double for her), then play the villain in the infinitely-worse Red Sonja, and finish out her career with a series of B-movies where she gets naked and shot at a lot. (She also appears extensively in the 1983 video by Helix, Heavy Metal Love, if anybody cares.)

What can you say about a movie where the romantic "lead" skates full speed toward a brick wall because he thinks it won't end badly? But on the plus side of the equation, there's a scene with Newton-John dancing with Gene Kelly (which, it turns out, was filmed later on a closed set because everybody was disappointed that they didn't have any musical numbers together) where you can plainly see that Kelly was 100% responsible for the choreography and training of Ms Newton-John. Watching her imitate his dancing style almost makes up for the clumsy transition back to reality at the end.

Having been planned as a roller-disco movie, the last 15 or 20 minutes are an extended dance sequence with a series of forgettable songs, all brightly lit and colorful. It's all eye-candy, with no nutritional value whatsoever.

In fact, with all of the glowing people and bad animation scattered throughout this shiny celluloid turd, this film can be said to be the progenitor of every Skittles ad ever made.

(Understand, when I say "bad animation," I'm not referring to the Don Bluth cartoon in the middle, which is very well animated, if completely insipid and with no reason to be there.)

Remember the old joke that explained that a camel is "a horse made by a committee?" This film stands as a testament to the truth at the heart of that statement. No film should ever be made by committee, and Xanadu is definitely a camel.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure I saw this movie when it came out with your wife (because who else was there to go to the movies with?). It was bad then too -- so bad I have completely blotted out everything about it from my memory banks. Hopefully replaced by something more meaningful, but I wouldn't swear to it.