Monday, November 9, 2009

Xanadu Review

Terrible films come out all the time--just look at anything with Sandra Bullock or Katherine Heigl in it, and you can find groan-inducing tedia that makes you feel sorry for anyone who got stuck seeing it in the theater and never getting their $8 back. But then some movies cross the line of awfulness, and unintentionally create what we call "so bad it's good". For this, see anything made by Russ Meyer, Roger Corman or Al Adamson--or come into the modern era with Road House or Flash Gordon (okay, maybe not so modern era). And one of my personal favorites, Barbarian Queen starring none other than Lana Clarkson, who would later be the murder victim of creative genius but certified psychopath Phil Spector. These films are cheaply made, but done in all earnestness by the tortured souls who wrote, directed or acted in them. These films cross the line to glorious awfulness.

But rarely are any of these films so awful that they cause actual destruction. (Sure, "Heaven's Gate" bankrupted United Artists and killed both the career of Kris Kristofferson who until that time had been riding high, and director Michael Cimino, who'd come off the Oscar sweeping Deer Hunter--but that film was actually good if overlong) During the dark days of the late Carter Administration--I'm talking 1980 to be exact--this country was suffering malaise, energy shortages, gas lines, polyester, terrible disco music, and shag carpeting. And a film called Xanadu.

Now, Xanadu has the distinction of killing everything it touched. It destroyed the careers of Olivia Newton John and Michael Beck, it killed Gene Kelly, it marked the end of the great '70s band The Electric Light Orchestra, it killed disco and it killed the roller derby craze. It was said that the '60s ended on that day in 1970 when the students were shot at Kent State. But the '70s surely ended with the release of Xanadu.

The plot--if you could call it that--was that Olivia Newton John (ONJ) is a "muse", a magical being from hated Greek Mythology who falls in love with a feather-haired artist (played by Beck) who has a job painting album covers onto murals for marketing purposes. (This is because in the Hollywood that is imagined in this film, no one thought to simply enlarge the album cover photos to wall poster size. If you find this lack of logic unbearable you might want to never go near this film. In fact, if you see a DVD copy of Xanadu you might want to kill it with fire). I should also point out that Beck's character--Sonny Malone--is considered quite the hunk, despite the feathered hair and vests he wears. Girls flirt with him on the street, and let him "borrow" their motorcycles when he needs a quick jaunt across the park and off of a fishing pier. But he only has eyes for ONJ! He has spotted her in the park and becomes obsessed with tracking her down. While this is technically stalking, it doesn't count as stalking if you have hunky feathered hair and a vest. Stalkers, take note!

Now, in his search he also runs into Gene Kelly, who is a clarinet playing old man who is apparently quite rich from his days in big bands but chooses to sit at the beach with his instrument. (I"m referring to the clarinet! Get your mind out of the gutter). Kelly prattles on about what a "good eye" Malone has, even though he has seen no evidence to demonstrate that Malone is anything other than a weirdo who steals motorcycles and drops them into the ocean while trying to stalk a blonde Australian on roller skates. (Now is the time to mention that way too much of this movie involves people rollerskating all over the place) If anything, Malone seems a bit irresponsible! But no matter--the two become fast friends. Malone has in the meantime followed ONJ to a dilipidated building that looks like it had better days back when Coolidge was president, and sees her roller skating around in a dark room that's cluttered with storage boxes. This would be creepy to anyone with sense, but not Sonny Malone! His feathered hair will protect him. His lack of foresight pays off though, as ONJ disappears without stealing his soul.

Malone and Gene Kelly are now BFFs, for some reason (maybe because Malone shared some popcorn with him earlier?). Kelly, believing that things like references, credentials or basic motor skills are just superfluous frills when picking a business partner, decides to open up a club on the run down site where Malone spotted ONJ skating around in the dark. They have a bit of a disagreement as to whether the club should play "rock and roll" or stick to a big band format, and I have to agree with Feathered Hair on this one--if you open a big band club in 1980 the only people showing up will be geriatrics who undertip and smell all mediciney. Not to mention causing a commotion because the club isn't racially segregated like in the old days! The weird part was during their argument, we get a visualization of what "rock and roll" and "big band" would be like, as the two imagined bands duke it out and dancers go flying everywhere. It's not really clear what they agreed on, but since later in the movie it's basically ONJ singing disco-fied music in campy and skimpy outfits, it seems that there was a loser in the argument, and that loser was "good taste".

Of course, the movie had other things going for it--an overlong shopping montage with mannequins come to life, and a cartoon sequence where ONJ and Malone turn into fish and birds, and Malone having an argument with Zeus about how he was in love with ONJ the muse. (If only they could have gotten the voice of John Travolta as Zeus, the film might have been saved!) Zeus does agree to let his muse have "one night" with Sonny Malone, and though I can think of many things I would have done with Olivia Newton John back in her prime, as it turns out her one night is spent singing and dancing at the opening of the club (which is called Xanadu, hence the title!). While the song and dance finale is an affront to humanity, it also seems that there were no real bona fide customers at the club (everyone present seemed to be part of her song and dance troupe). Is this a deeper lesson? That sometimes poorly thought out business ideas between irresponsible painters and geriatric clarinet players can actually fail?


  1. I actually love this movie and can watch it over and over again, one of the best soundtracks.......hehe then again I like Grease 2 better then Grease 1

  2. Zip--I forgot to mention the soundtrack is actually pretty glorious!