n the exhausting effort to keep ahead of the tides, young friends, Stylus has a new column to offer you. We’re calling it A Kiss after Supper, and in it we’ll be tracing the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue...
Now that A Kiss After Supper has gone through our obligatory Scorcese, Coen Brothers, and Anderson (Wes and P.T.) movies for those who care about ‘important’ and tasteful cinema, let’s talk about Robert Greenwald. While Martin Scorcese has recently done everything but sacrifice his first-born for a directing Oscar, Greenwald hit a home run with his first feature film, Xanadu. The Razzies, documenting the every year’s worst studio releases, were birthed after a screening of Xanadu. Not only did Greenwald win a directing award for helming this star-crossed film, he also served as inspiration for the awards themselves. So you see, Xanadu has given Greenwald an infamy that Scorcese can only hope to capture in future years.
Xanadu was a bomb, and one that’s hard to shrug off. In pure efficiency, this movie ended the movie careers of its trio of stars—Olivia Newton-John, Michael Beckisdul and Gene Kelly. But for those who prefer to forgive and forget, why don’t we enjoy this beautiful disaster that, over time, has fermented into being considered “one of the worst ever?” Xanadu is undoubtedly one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. But it wasn’t a disaster worth forgetting—we have only the music to thank for that.
In the A Kiss After Supper series, which documents the expert use of pop music in movies, Xanadu is the turning point: it marks the first film in the series that is memorable perhaps solely due to its music. Such films don’t come along often. What was the last movie for which the soundtrack was vastly more popular than the movie? Well, in an article about Xanadu, this doubles as rhetorical question.
A throw-back to the golden age of musicals with 80s music, Xanadu is the tale of a Greek muse sent to Earth to inspire an artist Sonny Malone (Michael Beckisdul), and a retired musician Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly). The muse, named Kira (Olivia Newton-John) doesn’t only inspire the two to build a mammoth disco roller rink club named Xanadu, but she also falls in love for the first time with Sonny. Although this is the basic plot, the movie adds extraordinary twists, like giving all the mythological figures British accents and other nonsensical touches that must be seen to be believed.
Criticizing Xanadu by normal standards doesn’t merely miss the point; it’s a waste of time. It doesn’t take a genius to realize how thread-bare the script is, how drab the cinematography looks, or why anyone decided to base the whole movie on an earlier turkey, Down to Earth. Xanadu is deceivingly complex in its ineptitude, so trying to understand how badly it fails is like unpacking the layers of a tightly wound Kubrick movie. Xanadu was a bomb insofar as to even completely annihilate filmic conventions—one of the largest being suspension of disbelief.
So let’s just say that Xanadu asks a lot from the audience from the very beginning of the movie. Within the first couple moments, following the ‘tortured artist’ voice-over of “Guy like me shouldn’t dream anyway,” the movie shifts to the neon outer glow of quasi-mythological dancers coming to life from a Santa Monica mural. Setting the tone for the entire movie, the music bombastically patches over the stream of mis-framed shots and stilted dancing. The vocoded-to-the-heavens “I’m Ali-i-i-ve!,” sounds like the only impacting element of Xanadu’s first musical number. Jeff Lynne’s score might be the biggest part of the Xanadu stew that saved theater owners from having to refund a theater-full of tickets, but it also makes the movie’s images delightfully underwhelming in comparison.
Since the film borders on insulting the audience at every turn, it becomes necessary to derive pleasure from Lynne’s music. Xanadu’s touch of delusional smug satisfaction, found in moments like Exhibit A, with the “muse” Kira (Newton-John) lighting up the Hollywood sign, cements this. Like a sugar-coated pain killer, the music nullifies the movie’s grating moments—it makes everything less pathetic and more endearing in its (vast) shortcomings. And with that tone in mind, the movie unfolds with a romance between Sonny Malone (Beckisdul) and his muse Kira (Newton-John). The movie continues to unfold with a romance between Sonny and Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly). While this sounds like the wrong side of risqué for a family musical, Sonny and Danny decide to use their new-found attraction to instead become ‘partners’—focusing their energy on consummating the nightclub Xanadu.
Sidenote: In case any of our studious readers missed the experimental mathematics lecture on the formation of cult/camp status, here’s a quick equation to get you up to speed on things:
Disco/Pop Superstars + Ambiguous Homoeroticism + Grandiose & Awful Production Values + Burnt-out Icon = Cult/CampDespite Xanadu’s quagmire of camp, Olivia Newton-John does try to bring some wholesome class to the movie. Sharing half of the soundtrack with ELO, her “Magic” even makes roller-skating through the abandoned Xanadu mysterious enough to be considered tantalizing for a minute or two. Similarly, the slow-burning ballad “Suddenly” almost creates a chemistry between Sonny Malone and Kira (when the two aren’t looking like they’re about to fall off their skates). Although Olivia Newton-John should’ve read the fine-print on the role that would supposedly catapult her into a full-fledged movie star, Xanadu was far from a total failure for her. Her songs “Magic” and the collaboration with ELO on “Xanadu” captivated fans on both sides of the Atlantic (the latter being Newton-John’s only #1 single in England).
Xanadu’s story isn’t one of pop success, but of care-free escapism. One of the best moments of the film could be the trip to the shopping mall to buy clothes for the inaugural night of club Xanadu. Our three lovely protagonists hop, skip, and dance their way through Danny McGuire’s by-the-numbers musical transformation montage. Set to ELO’s “All Over the World,” however, the sequence becomes haphazard in the friendliest sense. Riffing through some of the most cheesy transitional effects ever set to film, “All Around the World” imbues the scene with a pomp that makes every thrown together shot in the mall less cringe-worthy than it otherwise would be. You’d think that this would be considered pure ephemeral fluff, influential to no one. But it only took a couple of decades before the New Radicals created their snarky homage with “You Get What You Give”’s mall mayhem.
The film concludes with a tribal-disco roller-skating orgy of an opening night. While you’d never expect any song to top such mayhem, which includes Gene Kelly on roller skates, Olivia Newton-John belts out “Xanadu” with such a fiercely thin voice that it becomes difficult to focus on the variety show that is occurring all around her. ELO’s silky strings and piano flourishes top Xanadu off in the right fashion—proving that excess might not always be tasteful, but it’s always hard to forget.
By: Nate De Young
Published on: 2005-10-28