“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree”. These are the opening lines from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s (1772-1834 heart failure linked to opium use) poem Kubla Khan, inspired by Chinese history.
Since this is where the name Xanadu came from for the movie musical, it is only fitting the poem was composed and rhymes like a song itself.
Apparently you can set the poetry to an iambic pentameter but sadly I’m not that clever!
In the movie Xanadu (1980), the “pleasure-dome” is, like the new palace envisioned in the poem, the renovated nightclub “Xanadu”.
It is a movie lifted immensely by its multi-platinum soundtrack album and one which didn’t really interest me at the time, probably because I thought musicals were girly, but it’s a fun movie to look at now and I love the music.
I’m also a lover of Canadian band Rush’s epic song Xanadu. Honeydew anyone?
Xanadu the movie opens with an idealistic young artist named Sonny Malone, played by Michael Beck who had scored a hit with a role in the street gang film The Warriors (1979), who draws a picture of a dream girl only to tear it up and throw it out the window of his apartment.
When these pieces blow in front of a painted mural on the Venice Beach Boardwalk of nine muses, the song I’m Alive by Electric Light Orchestra begins and the muses one by one mysteriously come to life. The central muse is Kira (Olivia Newton-John, 1948-) and they all dance across Los Angeles, their bodies lined in neon before shooting off into outer space as if on a moonbeam. All except for Kira.
As Sonny walks through Palisades Park, Kira swings by, on roller-skates and kisses him before skating off.
When my sister Rebecca and her friend Jacky were around ten, they saw the movie at the now demolished art deco Glenelg Cinemas on Jetty Road. As a result they bought white skates so they could make believe they were Olivia as they skated happily about.
Driving his late 40s Packard Woody Wagon back to Air-flo record studios after failing to make it as an artist, Sonny must get back into the swing of working life as a working artist painting enlarged record covers to hang outside record stores.
He’s good though as he says: “Picasso gets to be called a genius and I get to be called the fastest painter around”.
His boss shows him his latest record cover to paint and it has Kira on it. He must find out who this girl is!
He spots her at the beach at Malibu but she is elusive with her penchant of zooming off into outer space on a moonbeam. He meets Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly) at Malibu Pier and they strike up an acquaintance.
Later Sonny discovers a dilapidated building which features on the cover on the album with Kira. The building is called the Auditorium which possibly was an exciting place to go in the 1940s. Inside the building, the sounds of the song Magic (one of Olivia’s most popular and enduring hits) is playing as Kira roller-skates around the auditorium. They speak and she knows his name and before disappearing again she tells him hers.
Not only is Sonny poorly paid by his mega-rich boss for his paintings, he also has to deliver them and install them! At one store called the Platinum Palace he bumps into Danny again, who has just bought a Glenn Miller record (remember this was back in the day when everything was vinyl, no CDs). He was once big in the industry back in the 40s and worked with Benny Goodman and lives in a gigantic mansion once owned by a silent film star.
Sonny recognises Kira on the cover of the Glenn Miller album dressed in 40s garb. It turns out Danny knew her, but as men do in love, he messed up and she disappeared from his life (nobody’s perfect!).
Sonny leaves and in a dream sequence, Danny and Kira are together as he imagines her singing and tap-dancing with him in the ballroom if his mansion.
Choreography for the movie was done by Kenny Ortega (1950-), who directed the cultish items Newsies (1992), which was a mega-flop musical about newsboys, and Hocus Pocus (1993) which is a fun but dark family film about witchcraft starring Bette Midler (1945-) as a one helluva crone of a witch.
According to Olivia’s autobiography Don’t Stop Believin’ from which I’ll use as background liberally (it cost $45 so I think I’ve earned the right!), she was in awe of Kelly (1912-96 stroke) who was one of her favourite dancers of all time. Just look at An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Apparently Kelly agreed to do the movie on a handshake at his doorstep and in it he brings his Hollywood persona intact.
When Olivia met Kelly, she found him “warm, sweet and very disciplined”. She had done three months of dancing lessons to prepare for the scene and three weeks of rehearsals. Kelly told her he would direct the scene and took her through it, rehearsing daily until she was in tune with him and they had “the best dance ever”.
When it came to filming, Kelly insisted it be shot on a closed set with only a skeleton crew and not even the director was present! It’s a charming and natural sequence.
So Sonny meets Kira one night at the record studio and they’re both on roller-skates.
The film was shot at the height of one of the roller crazes. Another happened with roller-blades in the 1990s. There was another skating movie at the same time called Roller Boogie (1979) starring Linda Blair. The roller craze had been strong throughout the 70s with roller derby films like Kansas City Bomber (1972) and Rollerball (1975 and again in 2002). Roger Corman capitalized on this with Unholy Rollers (1972), featuring tragic Playboy playmate Claudia Jennings (1949-79 car crash). More recently there was the roller derby film Whip it (2009).
You can go back in film history and see Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977 stroke in sleep) on skates in his silent film The Rink (1916) and rinks pop up many times in the ensuing years, peaking in the late 70s with the roller disco fad. Skatetown USA (1979) is another example in this period, which features Patrick Swayze (1952-2009 pancreatic cancer) and another tragic centrefold Dorothy Stratton (1960-80 shot by her estranged husband) whose life was dramatized in Star 80 (1983).
But back to Xanadu, and Kelly grew up on ice and roller-skating rinks, which is obvious at the film’s climax when Kelly skates along to ELO’s Drum Dreams.
Kira and Sonny skate around the studio to another good John Farrar (1945-) composition Suddenly, a duet between Olivia and Cliff Richard (1940-). He wasn’t a knight at this point.
It should be noted that Farrar, who wrote half the songs on the soundtrack, had long been a favourite of Olivia. He wrote Hopelessly Devoted to You and You’re the One that I Want for Grease (1978), as well as her earlier hit Have You Ever Been Mellow in 1975.
It was while filming this scene that Olivia literally fell on her ass – and broke her tailbone!
Rushed to hospital right in the middle of production, she was told to take off a few weeks and pumped full of painkillers. Someone else would have listened to the doctors but like a pro of the showbusiness stage, “the show must go on” and Olivia soldiered on.
Despite horrific pain and using a donut shaped cushion between takes, Olivia filmed all the roller-skating scenes refusing a stunt double.
Afterwards Danny and Sonny meet at the auditorium where they decide to become partners, merging their talents, symbolised in the song Dancin’ where Big Band meets Hard Rock, and refurbish the auditorium using Danny’s swollen bank account.
It’s a well-directed sequence by Robert Greenwald (1945-), who botches the dancing finale at the end of the movie. But then Greenwald really wasn’t suited to the musical and later found his forte in documentaries for which he has won countless awards. I wonder what would have resulted if Kenny Ortega had directed.
Danny meets Kira at the auditorium but can’t place the face, Sonny summons his boss and fires himself, meeting Kira for champagne afterwards where they kiss and are transported into a Disney-inspired dream sequence to the sounds of Jeff Lynne singing Don’t Walk Away. It’s a LOVELY scene.
Jeff Lynne and ELO were at the height of their popularity when the Xanadu album was released. The previous year they had released the iconic Discovery (1979) album. It was so good my auntie Bron had two copies! It features the hit Don’t Bring Me Down, which was used at the end of J.J. Abram’s Super 8.
Immediately after the animated sequence, the ELO party anthem All Over the World begins. It’s one of my favourite ELO songs. Most of their stuff is good and they’d been around since the early 70s when their music had a harder edge. Ma-Ma-Ma Belle (1973) is a good example. By the time they did the masterpiece concept album Time (1981), Jeff Lynne was beginning to lose interest and they disbanded in 1986. More recently Lynne and ELO put out the album Alone in the Universe (2015), which is pleasingly reminiscent of their later work.
With the nightclub named Xanadu about to open, Kira is feeling something called love for Sonny, something which the Greek god Zeus doesn’t allow for muses. Kira tries to convince Sonny she is a muse, eventually turning on the television, which talks directly to Sonny (I hope he’s not mentally ill and imagining it all!) and convinces him she really is a muse…
She says: “Muses are supposed to inspire but I fell in love… It was a mistake, I broke the rules”.
Kira tells Sonny she will love him forever before catching a moonbeam back to Mount Olympus or onto her next artist as a muse of dance and chorus does.
Sonny is disillusioned and his dreams of Xanadu are over despite Danny pouring a shit-load of money into the project. Danny explains he can’t just sit on a rock like him for thirty years and dwell on it. Dreams don’t die: “We kill them!”
Cue ELO’s song The Fall, another goodie, while Sonny skates Venice Beach feeling sorry for himself before skating at full speed into and through the mural of the muses into a netherworld, where he gets to explain his love for Kira to Zeus. Kira’s there too, pleading for just one more night on Earth… She sings Suspended in Time before being granted her wish.
She gives the performance of a lifetime at the opening night of Xanadu fulfilling Danny and Sonny’s dream of a wildly successful nightclub/disco – departing on a moonbeam after the show… But then a girl walks by Sonny who is the spitting image of Kira… The End.
If you thought Xanadu was an original story and you won’t, with its mixture of Greek mythology and Chinese history, it is based on the 1940s film Down to Earth starring Rita Hayworth (1918-87 complications of Alzheimer’s disease). That in turn was a sequel to Here Comes Mr Jordan (1941), a fantasy with sections set in Heaven. That film was in turn remade as Heaven Can Wait (1978), a hit for Warren Beatty (1937-).
The Xanadu soundtrack was more popular than the movie, which was a critical and commercial disappointment. It barely broke even. The vinyl album had Side One tracks written by Farrar with vocals by Olivia while Side Two were all written by Lynne and performed by ELO – with the final song featuring ELO and Olivia.
The album went to Number One in Australia, Austria, The Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Sweden and the United States. It went double platinum in the US alone selling over two million copies.
The film is already reminiscent of the vinyl album cover at a time when CD was about to evolve. It was around 1979 when Philips and Sony set up a task force inspired by their laserdisc prototypes to finally create the CD player which eventually went on sale in 1982.
That’s the tragedy of the CD and why vinyl is making a bit of a comeback – the artistry of the large size cover and sometimes the accompanying sleeve. And then there is the art of carefully taking the record out of the sleeve, putting it on the turntable and turning it on!
I stuck with vinyl to the bitter end and still have a large collection but with online streaming even the humble CD is endangered.
Some of the album covers of the 60s, 70s and 80s were simply incredible in terms of artwork, with the possible exception of The Beatles’ White Album. It probably had a good sleeve!
While it assured Olivia’s success as a singer, the critics ruined her budding acting career. She runs the gamut of chaste to sultry, like she did in Grease, returning to chaste again for Xanadu. It’s all in the hair and costumes.
The critics hated the film so much that John J. Wilson and Mo Murphy were inspired to create The Golden Raspberry Awards, or the Razzies, the booby prize for worst picture. Xanadu won worst director and a further six nominations. Poor Olivia scored one for Worst Actress.
She went on to make Two of a Kind with John Travolta in 1983 and won another Razzie nomination and a critical mauling which saw her never star in another major motion picture. The soundtrack for Two of a Kind went platinum though and any film which has Oliver Reed (1938-99 heart attack) as the devil can’t be ALL bad. I remember hating that one at the time but now I have a fondness for it.
Olivia played a butch lesbian singer in the funny gay joke movie Sordid Lives (2000) and had a small but very funny part in the in-joke movie Sharknado 5: Global Swarming (2017) with her daughter Chloe Rose Lattanzi (1986-). Olivia met Chloe’s father Matt (1959-) on the set of Xanadu.
I was oblivious to the scorn the film endured as I rotated the vinyl and my sister skated the streets and so probably are its new fans, the gay community et al love it, as midnight singalongs pop up in the US. It’s not really just a “camp” movie and that word is bandied about far too often in regard to cult movies. As a fantasy, and most importantly as a musical, it works.
It certainly could only have been made in Hollywood, USA!