Day Three of the Two-Week Torturefest

Poetry + LSD = “Xanadu”.

Directed by: Robert Greenwald
Written by: Richard Christian Danus and Marc Reid Rubel
Kira: Olivia Newton-John
Danny McGuire: Gene Kelly
Sonny Malone: Michael Beck
The Unnamed Muses: Cherise Bate, Juliette Marshall, Lynn Latham, Marilyn Tokuda, Melinda Phelps, Sandahl Bergman, Teri Beckerman, Yvette van Voorhees
Also Starring: Dimitra Arliss, James Sloyan, Ren Woods

Distributed by Universal Pictures on August 8, 1980. Produced in English by the United States. Runs 93 minutes. Rated PG by the MPAA–mature themes, language, brief nudity.

Xanadu was watched on Sunday, December 23, 2012.

“What do you mean she doesn’t exist? I’m looking right at her, she’s on the Nine Sisters album.” –Michael Beck as Sonny Malone

Xanadu is a strange potpourri of just about the most randomly apparent, obscurely natural concepts, activities, and what have you. Cheerleaders. Roller skating. Pop and rock music of the early 1980s. Big bands of 1945. The Rockettes. Dreams. Cardboard-and-paint special effects. Ludwig van Beethoven.

All of these are juxtaposed against one another, and in turn seen through the eyes of a young man named Sonny Malone, as he longs for a girl named Kira whom lives in a land called Xanadu. During the summertime, Xanadu serves as the capital city of China’s Yuan Dynasty, and is ruled by the emperor Kublai Khan; Kira herself is a Muse, and the daughter of Zeus, the Greek “god of gods.”

Now let’s consider the possibilities: Could Sonny have been simultaneously studying ancient Greek history, researching 13th century China, and engaging in his 1980 American social life, and simply confused them all? Is he stoned? Is he dreaming? Or is he just imagining what Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” would be as a frighteningly pseudo-intellectual fantasy? It remains a mystery, as none of this is explained in Xanadu. We’re simply supposed to watch and understand this hugely chaotic—yet moderately fun—mess. Did I forget to mention that it’s a musical, too?

Many sources, both generic and professional, have listed Xanadu as not the worst film ever made, but rather the best “guilty pleasure” film ever made, or a truly definitive one. Looking at facts, the film is plain awful. When watched back-to-back with Can’t Stop the Music, it was the inspiration for the annual “Razzie” Awards.

Since then, however, Xanadu has earned cult followers galore, enough to spawn a Broadway adaptation in 2007. I’m not sure I would question the sanity in such people. The substance is confusing and buried; the style is frenetic and strange. There aren’t any real values we’d normally expect in a film.

Where Xanadu does succeed is in bringing humor to the viewers’ fruition without quite realizing it own its own. The screenplay has an entire corn plantation strewn throughout it. Sonny is abysmally played by Michael Beck, with no help from terrible lines such as “You’re a movie!” and “Tuesday’s Wednesday.” On the other hand, Olivia Newton-John (Kira) takes the film too seriously. There’s a scene in which she explains to Sonny that she is, in fact, a Muse and a descendant of Zeus. When he isn’t convinced, she tells him: “Look up ‘muse’ in the dictionary. Go on, page seven-twenty-eight.” On paper, it’s an easy line to laugh at, but the delivery is just…good.

There’s one single area in which Xanadu succeeds with strongest intentions: music. The music is upbeat, classy, and fun. Although the choreography grows rather slapdash throughout the film, it’s fun to imagine this as the terribly cheesy music video with occasional interludes. I’ve never been one to enjoy Olivia Newton-John’s voice (when I hear the soundtrack from Grease, I suddenly have the urge to vomit), but here, she sings like…a Muse.

Xanadu is a quasi-“guilty pleasure.” It’s only bad enough to be fairly acceptable, vacillating in and out of dumb fun, and not especially memorable. I have trouble imagining it as a film I’d want to watch on loop, simply for its flashy, egotistic, and utterly random sense of theatricality. Is it honest-to-goodness torture trying to watch? Unless you have an aversion to the cast and/or crew, not at all. Would I recommend it? Cautiously. And very, very slightly.


Last Action Hero – Schwarzenegger’s “Terminator 2” for the youngsters.

This review was brought to you by…


2 thoughts on “Xanadu

  1. “It remains a mystery, as none of this is explained in Xanadu. We’re simply supposed to watch and understand this hugely chaotic—yet moderately fun—mess.”

    I think the story is fairly simplistic. A muse comes down from the heavens and inspires a graphic artist to open a roller disco. Along the way we’re treated to various musical numbers.

    One’s opinion of the movie is going to rely on what you think of the music. True, the acting is kind of silly, especially from Michael Beck who had just done The Warriors a year before. Talk about random!

    Anyway I’ve always found this to be pretty enjoyable despite its much maligned reputation. It was very expensive to make (it shows) so expectations were very high. Perhaps that’s why this is regarded as a flop. But it didn’t really do THAT bad. It made $22.8M in 1980 which is actually like $68.1M in today’s dollars. Even Looper didn’t make that much.

    Oh well. I’ll still continue to champion it. That climatic roller disco scene makes me laugh every time I see it.

    • Thanks for your long comment. I very much appreciate it.

      Truth be told, I had lots of trouble picking up on the story. I knew there was some sort of muse sent down from the heavens, but I didn’t know the artist was the guy who opened up the roller disco. I just picked up on a bunch of musical vignettes.

      The climactic roller disco scene actually bored me. I was kind of waiting for it to be over because it went on for so long.

Comments are closed.