Movies We Love: Xanadu


Xanadu (1980)

A million lights are dancing and there you are: A shooting star!


Frustrated artist Sonny Malone (Michael Beck) is stuck in a soul-sucking corporate job. He meets Kira (Olivia Newton-John), a Greek muse sent to Earth to encourage him to chase his dream to build a really awesome roller disco. She introduces him to retired big-band leader Danny Macguire (Gene Kelly), who’s got the moves and the money to make it all happen. But the plan goes awry when mortal Sonny and divine Kira fall in love.

Why We Love It

For the better part of two decades, admitting you loved Xanadu was a sure-fire way to get a surprise kick-in-the-nuts from the nearest film snob. At least, that was true for guys. If you were a girl, said film snobs settled for a stiff right jab to your ovaries.

Why the hostility? Well, pretty much since its release, Xanadu has been maligned as one the worst films ever. It helped inspire the creation of the infamous Razzie Awards (nominated for seven Golden Raspberries, Robert Greenwald took home the Razzie for Worst Director). Arriving just two years after the phenomenally profitable Grease, its catastrophic commercial and critical failure sounded the death knell for the Hollywood musical.

But the fuel Xanadu gives its detractors is the very reason its fans love it so. The plot is absurd. Who cares? It’s really not much sillier than some of Hollywood’s most cherished musicals. And the pacing is far snappier than that of such highly revered gems as Meet Me in St. Louis or Les Girls.

Xanadu marks legendary entertainer Gene Kelly’s final onscreen song-and-dance performance. Some lament that his last hurrah found him strutting around in a loud zoot suit and romping around inside a giant pinball machine. But, let’s face it. Xanadu was not Kelly’s goofiest hour. We’re talking about a guy who wasn’t above a good custard pie fight (The Pirate) or tap-dancing around with trash can lids on his feet (It’s Always Fair Weather). Xanadu finds the then-67-year-old hoofer in fine form. He’s laid-back, charming and clearly having a good time with his young co-stars.

xanadu-posterThe music of Xanadu, like much late ’70s and early ’80s mainstream pop, is a matter of taste. I can tolerate New Wave trash and pre-MTV Olivia Newton-John in limited doses, and this film showcases some of the more instantly hummable examples of the breed. I love the bubblegum bombast of ELO, which this film delivers in spades. Also, Xanadu pioneered the more recent trend toward pop-song oriented musicals. Before Xanadu, most musical soundtracks were firmly rooted in the old-school Vaudeville/Broadway stage tradition. Xanadu was ahead of its time, predating other pop-based musicals such as Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys by more than 20 years.

One element of Xanadu that hasn’t aged so well are the ’80s fashions. There are too many examples to cite here, but the most iconic are the ridiculous leg warmers Kira sports in almost every scene. They would be lame if she only wore them once, but they’re omnipresent to the point where one wonders if director Greenwald didn’t have some weird fetish for cotton-clad calves. Kira even wears them after being transformed into an animated bird. Come on! Can her legs really be that cold (just from the knees down, of course) all the time?

If it sounds like I’m ripping on the Movie I Love, well, I am. Part of the joy of Xanadu is it’s such a pure, shameless and earnest expression of cheese that you can simultaneously laugh with it and at it. You can MST3K your way through the whole thing while secretly (or not-so-secretly) enjoying it on a fundamental level.

Moment We Fell in Love

It’s hard to separate a single element of Xanadu that made me fall so hard for it. As a child, just watching the baffling but awesome pre-credit sequence — with its flying saucer bleeping and blooping its way around the Universal Studios globe — was enough to give me a chill.

As I’ve gotten older, I can now appreciate the not-so-subtle homoerotic subtext. It doesn’t take much imagination to see Danny Macguire as Sonny Malone’s would-be gay sugar daddy. After all, why would Danny inexplicably front all the money and do all the hard work in bringing the titular roller disco to fruition, and then offer to split the profit with Sonny 50-50? Sonny barely lifts a finger and he’s got an elderly bachelor eagerly throwing tons of money at him. Hmm.

I guess the one thing about Xanadu that’s always kept me coming back is its spectacular finale. ON-J is alternately resplendently tacky as she morphs through a medley of costume changes (u¨berfringed cowgirl, tiger-striped-and-mini-skirted vixen, glittering tinsel goddess), but she’s always irresistibly cute.

There. I said it. The root of my love for Xanadu starts with my lifelong crush on its safe-as-milk but totally hot star.

Final Thoughts

I’d be remiss if I didn’t give props to the people who’ve helped keep the memory of Xanadu alive and kickin’ in the 21st century.

First, a word about my sexuality. I’m a straight, married guy who has never tasted dick — and never wants to. Yeah, I enjoy a good Chicago-style hot dog with all the fixins — onions, peppers, pickle spear and relish — but that’s not even in the same ballpark. Not even the same fuckin’ sport, pal.

So, I’ll admit I was little put off when I first discovered my cherished childhood keepsake had been co-opted as a gay cult classic. I didn’t feel gay watching Xanadu as kid. I just thought it kicked ass.

But, if someone hadn’t carried a flaming torch for Xanadu all these years, it very well could’ve been lost to obscurity. If not for its strong camp following, we wouldn’t have seen a deluxe DVD reissue of the film, and we certainly wouldn’t have seen a critically acclaimed Broadway musical adaptation.

Thanks to them, the place where nobody dared to go is now “the love that we came to know.” We call it Xanadu.

J.L. Sosa is a freelance writer, photographer and horror filmmaker. He's burdened with an irrational fear of spiders and clowns. He loves (in descending order of magnitude) his girlfriend, his pets and spinach.

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