“I’ve been known to twinkle a toe or two.” – Danny McGuire, Xanadu
The year was 1980. Disco was reaching the end of its life cycle. People were lashing out against it. Roller skating was also big. Roller derby was a sport that was growing in popularity, but would never truly find a mainstream success in the way that other sports did. Roller rinks were a popular pastime. Like disco, they would eventually fade out of culture and become a timestamp of the late 1970s and early 1980s. That doesn’t mean that Hollywood couldn’t capitalize on them when they were big.
Roller skating has been used in many movies. A few focused on them in a big way, such as 1975’s Rollerball. The movie took the sport to an extreme, making a futuristic violent game that involved roller skating in circles while trying to throw a ball at a target. Disco was also used in movies such as 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, where John Travolta disco danced his way to super stardom. The two fads burned bright and burned quick, creating some memorable movies and some not so memorable.
1980 saw the release of three disco infused musicals. One that I have previously covered was a disco/rock/folk musical called The Apple. Then there was Can’t Stop the Music, a fictionalized biography of the Village People. Finally, there was Xanadu. All three movies used disco as a way to bring music to the audience. The thing about Xanadu is that it wanted to bring roller skating to audiences too. A best of both fads sort of thing was going on.
Xanadu followed Sonny Malone (Michael Beck), a struggling yet talented painter, working for a record company. He was the guy who painted giant-sized album covers to hang outside record stores. While painting, he recognized the woman on one of the covers. He searched her out. Sonny and Kira (Olivia Newton-John) began a relationship, and their love inspired him to team up with Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly) to open up a roller dance club called Xanadu.
There’s so much crazy in this movie that I don’t know where I can possibly go with this post. Why don’t I start at the beginning? That might be the easiest way to get into it. The opening credits started up and something flashed onto the screen that was unexpected. There was music in Xanadu by the band Electric Light Orchestra. It took a few minutes for the first song to kick in, but the music was coming. There are actually a few talented people behind portions of Xanadu. Electric Light Orchestra worked on the music. Don Bluth of The Secret of NIMH and The Land Before Time fame worked on an animated sequence. There was even a dance number featuring Gene Kelly and Olivia Newton-John that felt like it came out of a classic Gene Kelly movie. The sum was not equal to all of its parts, however.
The song by Electric Light Orchestra at the start of the movie was called I’m Alive. It played over a scene in which Kira came to life from a painting on the wall of a building. The painting showed a group of women. Each one was given life and flew into the sky. Kira went up then came back down and roller skated around. That’s how she bumped into Sonny in the park, and inspired him to take his life in a new direction. The song sounded very ELO, which was nice. But the scene going on under the music was a strange way to begin the movie. I didn’t know what to expect from Xanadu. In my mind, there would be more science fiction and less light fantasy, but I got what I got.
Enter Danny McGuire. He’s basically Gene Kelly if Gene Kelly had only ever made it big for a short time. He’s talented both in music and dance. Yet, Sonny found him sitting on the beach playing a clarinet. There wasn’t much of a connection at first. The connection came when Sonny ran into Danny again while looking for Kira. They talked about music and their influences. Danny played an album and pointed out his own instrumentals. This led into that great classic dance scene featuring Gene Kelly and Olivia Newton-John. I haven’t seen too many Gene Kelly films, but I have seen and loved Singin’ in the Rain. This felt like a dance number that could have been in that movie, if it were a little more comedic. It was nice to see an older Gene Kelly busting out the moves that made him famous. It was nice to see Danny McGuire be an unsuccessful Gene Kelly because it felt like a “what if” for his career. This was my favourite scene.
My second favourite scene was another dance scene that Danny was involved in. After Sonny and Danny had decided to open a nightclub named Xanadu, Sonny and Kira decided to give Danny a wardrobe makeover. It was like an 80s fashion montage, but at the beginning of the 1980s, before anyone was making those montages. It showcased Gene Kelly dancing through a clothing store while trying on outfits. It was a fun little diversion from the lackluster story.
Another interesting distraction was the animated sequence created by Don Bluth. From what I found online, this was added later to bring one more song into the production. Instead of bringing the actors back, they had an animated sequence made up. It was a dreamlike sequence that highlighted the romance of the movie. It involved Sonny and Kira in nature, becoming animals, and walking through scenery. It didn’t really fit though. So much of the movie was soaked in the fads of the time. The scene that led into the animated sequence involved Sonny and Kira roller skating around a studio’s sets. This was a timeless romantic animation scene that wasn’t held back by specific moments in time. It could be played at any time and have the same effect. It’s a great scene that doesn’t mix well with the rest of the movie.
One last thing to touch on is the opening of the club. In order to properly discuss this, I need to go back to the moment where Sonny convinced Danny to join the venture. The two of them had different visions for the venue. Sonny was picturing a late 70s glam rock vibe, while Danny was imagining a 40s swing pop type of club. When they ran the ideas by each other, they decided that a mixture would be perfect. Now, that’s not what we got. Xanadu was a late 70s pop and roller skating nightclub. Gone was the glam rock. Gone was the classic 40s swing pop. The club was a place for Olivia Newton-John to do her thing. This was not the club that they had agreed upon.
The final scene was a mixture of a few songs and dance sequences. None of these fit the original vision of the club. It began with roller skating and clapping while people shouted “Xanadu!” That part had a Stomp like feel. Soon after, Electric Light Orchestra came back into the movie with the song Xanadu, with vocals from Olivia Newton-John. After about three minutes of that, the genres changed pretty quickly. Tap dance, a harder rock song, country, and a return to the ELO Xanadu. It was a series of different music genres, rather than the blend that inspired the club.
Xanadu was a crazy movie with many good parts that didn’t fit together. It was a square peg in a round hole situation. Perhaps it was a case of trying to find anything popular and throwing it into the movie. The basis of a roller disco is something that was popular for a short time and hasn’t been popular since. But that doesn’t mean the movie isn’t worth watching. It is a perfect encapsulation of the late 70s while also harkening slightly back to the 40s era popularity of performers like Gene Kelly. There are a few different story threads that could have been their own interesting movies, but Xanadu put them all together and it lessened the whole. Perhaps I should journey back to its inspiration, a movie called Down to Earth from the 1940s. Maybe that movie is closer to what I wanted. I don’t know. What I got was Xanadu. It was interesting, at least.
Now it’s time to finish off with a few notes:
- I mentioned a movie named The Apple in this post, which I’ve covered for the Sunday “Bad” Movies.
- Joe Mantegna was credited for his work in Xanadu, though he was deleted out of the final cut. He has also worked on Baby’s Day Out, and Valentine’s Day.
- Jack Lindine appeared in Xanadu. He would go on to appear in Jack Frost.
- Bebe Drake showed up in Xanadu. She was also in a movie called Leprechaun in the Hood.
- Xanadu featured Aharon Ipale, who was in a little movie named Ishtar.
- Finally, one of the actresses in Xanadu was Sandahl Bergman. You might recognize her from Hell Comes to Frogtown.
- Have you seen Xanadu? What were your thoughts about it? What other movies have captured fads in the same way? You can share any thoughts that you have in the comments below.
- Whenever I’m putting together the schedule for the Sunday “Bad” Movies, I use suggestions to get some of the movies. If you have any suggestions, let me know on Twitter or in the comments.
- Sometimes when I’m watching bad movies, I share clips on Snapchat. If this interests you, you can add me on there. Jurassicgriffin.
- Next week’s movie is going to be I, Frankenstein. There’s no importance to it being included in the Sunday “Bad” Movies right now. I just threw it in there, and now I’m getting to it. It’s a first time watch. That’s surprising because it seems like something I would have watched by now. I’ll let you know how I feel about it next week.