Originally conceived to capitalize on the roller disco craze, producers decided to shift the focus of Xanadu (1980) when two similar projects (Skatetown, U.S.A, and Roller Boogie; both from 1979) made it to the theatres first. There would still be plenty of skating, but the emphasis would now be on the musical/fantasy aspects of the story.

By pairing Olivia Newton-John, the beautiful young star of Grease (1978), with the singing and dancing legend Gene Kelly, the studio must've felt they had box-office gold on their hands. But combining the glamour of 1940's Hollywood with the pop music of the 1980's was like mixing oil and water; it just didn't work. This incompatible union is what makes Xanadu so memorable and the reason it has achieved minor cult status.

 

Young artist Sonny Malone (Michael Beck) is working at home, but he just can't seem to find his creative groove. Sonny tosses the pieces of his most recent attempt out the window. The scraps of paper float away on the breeze eventually coming to rest in an alleyway where a mural of the Greek Muses comes to neon-infused life. One of these Olympian beauties is Australian pop songstress Olivia Newton-John (ONJ). The girls pose and happily prance around to "I'm Alive," the first of several Jeff Lynne/ELO songs. After gyrating like solid gold dancers, the girls speed away in colorful balls of light to inspire the masses.

After his failed attempt to make it on his own as an artist, Sonny returns to the art department of Air Flow Records where he'll continue to reproduce and enlarge the cover art of record albums for promotional purposes. When he is given his next assignment he marvels at the mysterious girl on the cover.

"I think that's this crazy girl I just ran into. I was walking through the park, she nearly ran over me, then she kissed me." No one seems to know who she is. It's as if she appeared in the cover photo by magic.

While searching for his mysterious lady love at the beach, Sonny is drawn to the melody of a clarinet being played by old-timer Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly). Suddenly, skating down the boardwalk is Sonny's mystery girl. He takes off in pursuit, his search eventually leading him to the condemned Pan Pacific Auditorium.

 

Once inside, the unmistakable sounds of ONJ's hit "Magic" play while ONJ herself skates in and out of the shadows, waving her arms rhythmically in a pseudo-choreographed routine. All Sonny learns from the enigmatic beauty is her name, Kira.

With their common interest in music, Danny and Sonny become fast friends. While showing Sonny around his mansion, Danny recounts the pertinent moments in his life. How he used to play with Glenn Miller, once owned his own nightclub, and lost his heart to a girl who bore a striking resemblance to Kira.

While reminiscing about the good old days Kelly dances with the ghosts of his past. "Whenever You're Away From Me" is a nice duet between Kelly and Newton-John. ONJ holds her own with Kelly, while Kelly proves that he still has what it takes. It's great to see 68 year-old Kelly doing what he does best, but whatever dignity he has will soon vanish when he's called upon to perform later in the movie.

ONJ visits Beck at work while he puts the finishing touches on the album reproduction that bears her likeness. "It must be frustrating to waste your talents on things that don't really matter to you." Like this movie Ms. Newton-John?

 

As part of their first date Sonny takes Kira to a special recording studio. The bare soundstage features various settings that are supposed to inspire. It's all pretty silly as different themed props fly in and out on wires while ONJ and Beck skate to the song "Suddenly." They skate over a city rooftop, through a desert oasis, and (in homage to Gene Kelly) a rainstorm.

At the end of their memorable evening together Kira takes Sonny back to the Pan Pacific Auditorium and suggests that it'd be the perfect location for Danny's new nightclub.

"I think this place could be anything you want it to be."

Hmmmm…perhaps the most happening roller disco ever?

The next day Sonny shows the place to Danny. "Kid you don't need a building, you need a demolition team." Once inside they consider the possibilities. Their ideas are so vivid that they come to life.

In "Dancin'" the new wave 80's literally collide with the big band sound of the 1940's. In an outrageous battle of the bands ONJ lends her three part harmony to an orchestra and swing dancers, while The Tubes, clad in orange jumpsuits, play music with a more contemporary sound (circa 1980 that is). Eventually the two opposing musical styles merge into one big party.

 
     
 

Thoroughly convinced, Kelly shouts, "I love it! I'll do it!" and with those simple words Danny and Sonny are now partners which, Kelly helpfully explains is "…like being married, without the good part." Kira (sans skates for once) suggests the name Xanadu.

To celebrate their venture together Sonny takes Kira to the Hollywood Bowl. When pressed about her family and her past, the inscrutable Kira explains, "You know enough about me already; any more and you'll get a headache."

When our lovers kiss there are fireworks…literally. Xanimated sparkles engulf them as the ELO power ballad "Don't Walk Away" swells on the soundtrack. Inexplicably we are then treated to a Don Bluth animation sequence where Sonny and Kira flirt and cavort atop a rose, are transformed into fish, and then change into lovebirds.

 

Progress is being made on the construction of Xanadu. While visiting the building site Kelly mentions to ONJ that he'd like the first dance at the grand opening.

Beck incredulously asks, "You're gonna dance?"

"I've been known to twinkle a toe or two."

Before he sets foot and the dance floor our misguided lovers suggest he update his look. Something with pizzazz. So, they take him to a franchise glitz dealer/clothing emporium where the customers and punk employees look like colorful rejects from a Mad Max movie. While dancing to "All Over the World" Kelly tries on an embarrassing succession of "trendy" outfits accompanied by more Xanimated sparkles and neon. By the end of the song Xanadu is ready for business.

 

On the eve of the opening Kira realizes her true feelings for Sonny. She's fallen for his special brand of anti-charisma and decides to tell him everything.

"I'm a Muse." she confesses.

"I'm glad somebody's having a good time."

She manages to profess her love before being beamed back home.

Utterly despondent over her departure, Sonny goes roller skating down the boardwalk while another ELO song, "The Fall," throbs away. When he passes the mural seen earlier in the movie Sonny does the logical thing…he skates toward it as fast as he can. Lucky for him that the painting is apparently a gateway to heaven. Sonny is transported to Olympus, which looks like a neon hued video game.

 

Sonny has a chat with Kira's dad (Zeus/God) and she asks for just one more night of mortality. She is refused and Sonny is transported Star Trek-style back to earth.

With a cover girl breeze gently blowing her Breck girl hairstyle, ONJ pours her heart into the ballad "Suspended in Time." God apparently loves her singing so much that he changes his mind and sends her back to earth.

The gala opening of Xanadu serves as the movies climax (boy is it a doozy) As crazy as some of the musical number have been up to this point, they pale in comparison to the outrageous eleven minute musical finale.

The madness begins with Gene Kelly roller skating (yes roller skating) out from beneath a flashing neon Xanadu sign. Jugglers hurtle pins at him as he encourages club-goers to skate with him to the percussive marching band intro. Disco ninjas show off their moves (on skates of course) while cocktail servers get their groove on. Darcel Wynne (of "Solid Gold" fame) stage dives while the roller skating chorus executes some choreographed moves, clap rhythmically, and chant "XANADU!" over and over. Gene Kelly is having such a great time that the screen splits into three images as Kelly skates on "HO!"

Ms. Newton-John makes her appearance and sings the title track "Xanadu" surrounded by dancers sporting a decidedly 80's wardrobe, the boys wear velour jackets and the girls wear satin blouses with linebacker shoulder pads. Break dancers in zoot suits show off their pop n' lock moves while a dancing couple twirl on top of a giant waffle maker.

Send in the clowns! ONJ next sings beneath a pair of tightrope walking mimes and a group of chorus boys lay on the ground so a speed skater can jump over them Evil Knievel style. Dancers continue to twirl on the center dais/fountain while a trapeze artist spins overhead.

The music comes to an end but ONJ keeps on going, beginning an entirely different number! Not just one, but three completely different and unrelated songs! First she is joined by her Muse sisters on the rotating multi-colored dance floor and performs a tap routine that is both retro and futuristic at the same time.

 
     
 

Then she morphs into a rock and roll slut. Really, what Olivia Newton-John musical finale would be complete without good girl Olivia transforming into a bad girl vixen? The reason Michael Beck doesn't do much dancing in the movie is made evident in this segment. His white boy shoulder shaking is, well…just bad.

ONJ is a little bit country too. She is next at the center of a Xanadu ho-down. With the lengthy fringe on her white leather cowgirl jacket who needs a lasso?

The disco beat returns and ONJ begins her "Xanadu" reprise in an other-worldly lamé robe and beaded wig. Standing center stage on an illuminated riser Olivia and her sisters transform back into their chic peasant dresses as the music builds to a crescendo. As she hits the impossibly high final note "Xanaduuu…UUUU…UUUU", ONJ is lifted back into the heavens amid sparkles and neon.

Sonny is alone again and Danny tries to console him by pointing out a very pretty cocktail waitress, one who (surprise) resembles Kira. Perhaps this time she can inspire him to do something other than open a roller disco night club. Or at least help him pick better movies in the future.

The DVD is pretty standard. Hardcore Xana-fanatics will want to checkout the trailer which, like the movie itself, attempts to mix two separate eras in movie advertising. It features lots of adjectives like, magical, dazzling and spectacular. Unfortunately, the box-office receipts were less than magical or dazzling and the movie became a spectacular flop. The soundtrack, on the other hand, did quite well.

John Travolta was rumored to be first pick for Olivia Newton-John's love interest, a perfectly logical choice following the success of Grease. But Travolta was either busy or wisely said "No". The big question is, how in God's name did they make the leap from Travolta to Michael Beck? The world may never know.

During production, ONJ fell for Xana-rific chorus boy Matt Lattanzi. They married in 1984, had a child, and were divorced in 1995.

A trivia footnote: John Wilson, the mad genius behind The Golden Raspberry Awards, dreamed up the "Razzies" while sitting through a double bill of Xanadu and Can't Stop the Music (1980).

CCT also recommends:

The Apple | Cool Cinema Trash
The Apple

The Apple Review | Cool Cinema Trash

Can't Stop the Music | Cool Cinema Trash
Can't Stop the Music

Can't Stop the Music Review | Cool Cinema Trash

Roller Boogie | Cool Cinema Trash
Roller Boogie

 

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