Xanadu Review

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem Kubla Khan inspired both Citizen Kane and this. Just think about that for a moment.

In 1980, three musicals were released within a three month period that were so bad, they inspired John J. B. Wilson to create The Golden Raspberry Awards to “honor” horrible films. As you can rightly assume, all three movies were critically reviled and did terribly at the box office. They have since reached a somewhat cult status, as many good bad movies do… if that makes any sense. But are these actually decent films that have become cult musicals because they were underappreciated in their time, or are they just campy garbage that people “enjoy” ironically? In this three-part review, I will watch all three of these infamous musicals and give my opinion on each one because what is the internet for if not to boast about your opinion to the entire world?

Let’s get this out of the way first: Musical films are hard to pull off successfully. Having a character break from the narrative to sing about their thoughts instead of, oh, I don’t know, talking about them in a realistic manner, completely dispels whatever suspension of disbelief there was. In a theater production, the music numbers can work in one’s favor because, given the limited amount of sets and the fact that the actors are right there, in your face, live, it’s easier to buy into, contextually speaking. Most of the universe building is done in the audience’s mind, so a theater goer is usually more forgiving of what constitutes as a “fourth wall” anyway. Since there is less space and budget to work with, as long as there’s catchy music done well and some good choreography that really takes advantage of the stage’s limitations (or goes beyond them), a theater audience will be delighted.

How else can you explain how this damn thing ran for so long?

In a film, it’s a bit harder for the average audience member to see someone, for seemingly no reason and without warning, break from the plot to sing a song and dance around. There’s already a distance between the audience and the actors since the audience is merely watching a projection instead of live performers. Because of that, the fourth wall is more clearly established, making it even more jarring to have the characters break through it by doing a dance number. After that, we no longer see the actors as characters living an unfolding drama, but entertainers singing for our amusement. When people go to a movie, they want to see a good narrative, believable acting, excellent direction, relatable characters, drama and emotion. A musical film has to work that much harder to have the audience believe in the spectacle because the singing has to seem completely natural to the universe that’s established while exceeding beyond what could be done in a play.

Making the film a comedy usually helps.

That said, Xanadu does itself no favors by being a movie instead of a stage production. Its plot is bat-shit insane, but it’s filmed in the most uninspiring way imaginable. Most of the music numbers are shot with minimal coverage — single shots at flat angles with takes that go on forever. It’s an extremely bland and unexciting film. For example, check out this “music number”:

Xanadu – “Suddenly” scene

Perhaps if I was watching the actors sing this live on a stage, along with all of the effects, I’d be a tad more forgiving of this scene. But as is, it’s long, boring and serves no purpose within the film…. It’s padding, basically. Most musicals typically have simple plots that you could describe in a single sentence, and Xanadu is no exception. (In their defense, musicals pretty much need uncomplicated narratives in order to fit in music numbers and still be within a decent running time.) However, there’s no excuse for when the songs are completely pointless and extraneous — the music can, and should, be necessary for the experience. The last thing you want is to have your audience checking their watches when the lead character starts singing.

"No one told me this musical would have so much singing in it! All right, that does it! I'm leaving!"

Since I brought it up, I guess I might as well talk about the plot. I just stated that it can be summed up in one sentence (and that it’s bat-shit insane), so here goes: A struggling painter is visited by an honest-to-god, daughter-of-Zeus muse in order to be inspired to create a rollerdisco, but the two find themselves falling in love, which complicates her mission since she’ll eventually have to leave him and return to Mount Helicon. No, seriously — that’s the plot. You don’t really find out that she’s a muse until the third act, so, spoiler alert, I guess. But then again, the film is 30-years-old (and terrible), so it’s not like you haven’t had time to watch it (assuming that you’d even want to, which you don’t).

I’ve said several times now that the film is terrible, but haven’t really gone into detail. Well, that’s because it’s just overall bad in every conceivable way that a musical can be. The acting sucks, the directing is lazy and uninspired, the plot is beyond stupid, the dialogue is pure exposition, and worst of all, the music isn’t even really that good. The soundtrack may have had a couple hits back in the day, but Olivia Newton-John and Electric Light Orchestra phoned it in for this one.

The whole film smacks of boredom and incompetence… except for Gene Kelly. Even though he was past the point of retirement when the movie was made, he was hoofing it like a pro. Throughout Xanadu, I got the vibe that he was genuinely having a fun time, even though he was totally debasing himself by even appearing in it.

Gene Kelly: 68 and still makin' panties drop.

Seeing it now, it’s pretty weird to watch Xanadu. The movie serves as both a time capsule of kitschy, campy nostalgia and as a once-harbinger of death for many elements of American pop culture: disco, roller rinks, Gene Kelly, and Olivia Newton-John’s career as a bankable actress. Despite all the things that died around — and due to — Xanadu’s premiere, it’s even weirder to see the successes that came from it. The film spawned an extremely well-reviewed and profitable Broadway adaptation; Joel Silver, a first-time producer for Xanadu, later financed The Matrix films and many other box office hits; and Robert Greenwald, the director, went on to make popular left-wing propaganda documentaries about how FOX News and Walmart suck.

That's odd. I don't see "From the director of Xanadu," anywhere on the cover.

While Xanadu was a compost heap that eventually grew a flower (of debatable merit), the same can’t be said for the other two films in this soon-to-be pseudo-trilogy. Stay tuned for the next musical review, as I examine a film that has one of the most ironic titles ever.

Xanadu? More like Xanadon’t.


4 Responses to Xanadu Review

  1. Darby says:

    It’s funny you post this today, as just today I was thinking about what kind of musical I’d write – were I to write one – and what problems are inherent in the genre. Strange.

    I think another problem, apart from the artifice of breaking into song at random, is that film is at its best when it’s efficient.

    (To some people this is debatable, and they want film to be more poetic. But I still think the two-dimensional medium has the potential to be exceedingly boring and pretentious when trying to be too artistic. And I don’t care what James Cameron does – film is still a two-dimensional medium…versus plays, which are three dimensional, so they get away with being poetic – a.k.a. boring – more easily.)

    Economy of words and visuals makes for some of the most powerful, entertaining and memorable movies. If the dialogue or character or action sequence or slapstick buffoonery doesn’t add to the movie’s story progression, then it’s one more thing to distract our already clouded and impatient minds.

    And musical numbers are the epitome of ineffiency. Ever tried to watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? It’s 3 hours of gawdawful, mind-numbing horror. And NOT in a good way.

    As you pointed out, comedy can help. It punctures the artifice and makes us more willing to excuse meandering. (“Ha! Oh, who cares if it’s pointless – it made me laugh!”)

    I’d still like to see a flick where the music is necessary and moves the story/characters/plot significantly forward somehow. Anyone got a good example of that? Some of the musicals I like/tolerate do some of that, but it’s still does so less efficiently than regular film.

    Perhaps that’s inevitable, but I think the best/least crappy musicals try not to waste or have musical numbers for no reason.

    And the most boring and intolerable ones have no such consideration for their audiences. And they turn out like Xanadu, apparently.

  2. Boone says:

    Funny you should bring up Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It was written by Ian Fleming, the man who created James Bond. But I digress.

    A good example, in my opinion, of a musical that uses songs effectively is Little Shop of Horrors. The songs are used for montage scenes that show the passage of time (“Some Fun Now” and “The Meek Shall Inherit”), character development (“Dentist!” and “Somewhere That’s Green”) and establishing setting (“Skid Row”). It even disguises pure exposition through song (“Feed Me” and “Da-Doo”). The film is full of humor and good songs, and it still comes in at about an hour and a half. Also, with the big name cast and the puppetry of Audrey II, the film gives audiences what they couldn’t see on stage.

    Not many more come to mind. Point is, musicals are hard to do… well. Anyone can make a bad one.

  3. John Wade says:

    Well, today’s movies are so bad they hurt with all the garbage, violence, and junk in them. At least Xanadu had some acting. Sure, it wasn’t a blockbuster but it was good none the less.
    The music was very good, since the writer could combine two very different genres together so well, something your modern music writers can’t do.
    The special effects were also ahead of their time in many ways.

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