1980 - PG - 93 Mins.
|Director: Robert Greenwald
|Producer: Lawrence Gordon
|Written By: Richard Christian Danus, Marc Reid Rubel
|Starring: Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly, Michael Beck, James Sloyan
|Review by: Jake Cremins
'Xanadu' has its heart in the right place, I guess. It believes in love powerful enough to span different worlds, and in making dreams come true, and following your heart, and in the magical ability of roller discos to bring us together.
I believe in all of these things. Truly, I do. But if I were going to make a movie about them, I hope that it wouldn't be so colossally dumb, and with such bad coreography. For yes, 'Xanadu' is a musical, and a most off-putting one, where the story has you praying for the next song to start, and the songs have you praying for someone to jump out of their seat and yell "FIRE!"
Olivia Newton-John is Kira, a Muse who is brought to life along with her sisters by the work of Sonny Malone (Michael Beck), a frustrated artist who toils away painting large versions of album covers to display in record stores. He comes to his job apparently so that he can complain about it and leave, whining about how he wants "freelance" work so that he can do whatever he wants. Of course, working freelance means he'd be doing exactly the same work, minus the dependability of an office to feed him assignments, but never mind.
So anyhow, the nine Muses are brought to life by Sonny's artistry, though he looks like he could use the help of one of those schools that advertise on matchbooks. Kira rollerskates into his life and decides, reasonably enough, that she should inspire him to open a roller disco. But...falling in love wasn't part of the plan. There is also Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly--yes, Gene Kelly), a kindly old gent who sits on the beach at sunrise, playing his clarinet and remembering the good old days in 1945, when he owned a club himself. A little of Kira's magic rubs off on him, and after forming a friendship with Sonny he provides all of the money for the roller disco.
That's about it for the plot, which hobbles along for ninety-three minutes like an old dray horse, with dialogue so truly odd that it rivals the most poorly dubbed Godzilla movie. Either this *was* a Godzilla movie when it started, or the screenplay was the winner in an elementary school Make Your Own Movie contest. And then there are the musical numbers, which are so flat as to be almost awe-inspiring. Dancers appear, lights get brighter, colors start flashing across the screen, we begin to perk up...and then the Electric Light Orchestra begins pounding away with mediocre rock music and it all deflates.
The ads have made much of 'Xanadu' having "the most exciting soundtrack since 'Saturday Night Fever,'" but they've forgotten a crucial fact: 'Saturday Night Fever' wasn't a musical. Oh, it had music, almost wall-to-wall, but it was supporting a great dramatic story, and had a reason for being the way it was. The movie was about characters who went to discos, and therefore the music playing in the background was disco music. 'Xanadu,' on the other hand, has a story that could take place at any time and with any type of music (as a matter of fact, it's a remake of 1947's 'Down to Earth'), and so it's depressing that it chooses ELO over something more grand and inspiring. Watching splashy dance numbers on the screen while hearing stuff like "I'm Alive" grinding away on the soundtrack is so jarring that it's impossible to be engaged; I just sat back in puzzlement.
There's more. The casting, for one thing, makes no sense. Michael Beck, who plays Sonny, last starred in 'The Warriors,' the gritty action film about a gang trying to make it across New York City without being murdered by rival gangs. He was fine for that, and understandably looks utterly lost here. His is the kind of role that requires a blandly handsome guy who looks like he could star in Pepsodent commercials, not someone with who looks rough and closed off to the world. He wanders among the expensive production numbers like a stagehand who's accidentally stepped in front of the camera.
And then there's Olivia Newton-John, who's been getting a lot of flak for her performance here, unfairly, I think. It's not that she's any good here (she's not), but that she's given nothing to work with. As Kira, all she gets to do is whiz by on rollerskates every once in a while and flash a dazzling smile. After half an hour or so she even gets a few lines of dialogue, though not nearly enough to explain why she has top billing. If you want to mute any charm Newton-John might have, this is the way to do it: turn her into a mannequin, whose only purpose is to look pretty and sing once in a while. She looked pretty and sang once in a while in 'Grease,' too, but at least there she was a character who interacted with other people and did things.
Which brings me to Gene Kelly, who is truly astonishing here. He's still got it. I was expecting an embarrassment--the man is sixty-eight, after all--but he's so bursting with energy and charisma that I began wondering why the Muse was sticking with Sonny when he was so obviously available. Unfortunately, the movie never lets him go completely loose (his one tap-dancing number is made easy for Newton-John, who does it with him), but there's a moment in an otherwise execrable number when he suddenly bursts into a manic bit of ad-libbing, and it feels like a secret signal to the audience. He even manages to take his dialogue, which is as bad as anyone else's, and make it sound charming.
Unfortunately, the movie leans on Kelly's presence whenever possible, to insert some kind of generation-gap element to the story. Who is better, Glenn Miller or the songwriters who made this musical score? Not realizing that the answer is "Glenn Miller," the filmmakers include such stuff as a musical number in which an old-fashioned big band has a musical battle with The Tubes, which sounds like an unfair fight to me. And there's a truly mortifying sequence where Kelly is taken to a clothing store and dressed in the latest neon-colored fashions; watching Gene Kelly try to look excited about being dressed in a cowboy outfit with tassels popping out of everything is about as entertaining as watching him try to dance with anvils glued to his feet. It's a bad sign for a movie about a sweet and gentle Muse when we want her to stop meddling with everything and let Gene Kelly do what he wants.