10 Reasons Xanadu Is The Craziest Musical Ever Made
Xanadu is a musical fantasy movie starring Aussie legend Olivia Newton-John, classic Hollywood leading man Gene Kelly, and Michael Beck. It was released in 1980 to very little fanfare, only just scraping its budget back at the box office and it was forgotten soon after, living on only in the few Olivia Newton-John songs from the soundtrack that made their way into the charts. However, years later it has become a cult classic beloved by fans of 80s nostalgia, Don Bluth and roller-skating.
With its intoxicating mix of earnestness, overconfidence and surrealism, it’s easy to see why. It attempts to define the 80s when it was released just a year into them, tries to combine the wholesomeness of 40s cinema with the madcap energy of the late 70s, and throws in every off-the-wall element you can imagine: from random animated sequences to women turning into glowing balls of light. For a number of reasons, Xanadu has rightfully gained the title of one of the strangest movie musicals ever made, and today we’re celebrating its most unbelievable elements.
The wild scene transitions
If you think of widely loved and critically acclaimed movies from the last 50 years, the titles that come to mind probably have pretty restrained editing. They might make some bold experimental choices in the pursuit of putting you into a character’s mindset or evoking a particular mood but, for the most part, movies that age well tend to stick to tried-and-true editing that you barely even notice.
Xanadu absolutely does not do this. The screen wipes of Star Wars might seem like a delightfully anachronistic flourish to us now, but Xanadu makes them look downright minimalist. Here, scene transitions are marked with a vertical or horizontal screen wipe at the very least, if not a matrix wipe or a clock wipe. At one point in the movie, a jump cut even occurs after the neon shape of a vintage car is projected across the screen. Xanadu unapologetically carries the over-the-top tone of the movie into the editing, to the point where you almost expect a star wipe to happen at any moment.
Gene Kelly gets a dress-up montage
Gene Kelly is a bona fide Hollywood legend. He dominated Hollywood in the 40s and 50s, starring in countless musicals and movies that went on to become classics. In Xanadu, he plays a former celebrity conductor and big band enthusiast named Danny McGuire, who carries the same sophistication, class and poise of Kelly’s golden age characters. That is, until his dress-up montage.
His new business partner Sonny, and Kira the immortal muse, convince McGuire that his classic 50s get up is simply not appropriate for the exciting new world of the 80s. If McGuire wants to join them at the opening of their refurbished roller-rink-slash-big-band-performance-venue, then he has to get a whole new look. Cue an extended sequence where Gene Kelly tapdances way through a whole wardrobe of comedic and scenario-specific outfits until he finally lands on a horrifically loud suit. Still, Kelly makes even that look cool.
It’s also a crossover with 1944’s Cover Girl
Xanadu tries to be a lot of things at once: a classic Hollywood love story, a rocking 80s musical and a surrealist animated masterpiece. Given that it tries to tackle so many genres at a time, it’s actually not that surprising that it’s also technically a crossover movie and a sequel – Gene Kelly had played the character of Danny McGuire before, almost 35 years before Xanadu was conceived.
Big band enthusiast Danny McGuire first appeared in Cover Girl, a 1944 comedy musical that sees Kelly star alongside fellow screen icon Rita Hayworth. In the film, McGuire runs a nightclub that is his pride and joy, all the while dating one of the chorus girls working there. In Xanadu, McGuire confesses that his muse came to him in the early 50s and encouraged him to follow his dream of opening a venue, but that he abandoned the endeavour not long after. Weirdly, Cover Girl also includes a plot where identical muses appear to different men across their lifetimes – but it is due to the two muses actually being blood family, rather than secretly being the same immortal goddess.
There’s no reason for the roller-rink plot point
Roller-skating is a huge part of Xanadu. When Kira is not wearing heels, she infatuates Sonny by skating around the park just out of reach, and when she is ordered by Zeus to return to the realm of the gods, she skates off into the distance while wearing the same pair of slouch knee-high skates. Not only that, but the main plot of the film revolves around Sonny and Danny collaborating on a huge roller rink, where rock bands and swing dancing can co-exist peacefully.
The problem is: Xanadu really doesn’t need to be about roller-skating. Sonny is an artist whose main passion is painting, while Danny McGuire is obsessed with swing dancing and big band music: neither of them have the level of passion for skating needed to own and manage a roller rink. Once you realise that the plot could function just as well if Sonny had been hired to paint colourful 80s murals all over Danny’s drab 50s dance hall, the movie’s whole obsession with roller-skating becomes totally baffling.
Olivia Newton-John isn’t even playing the right muse
There’s no denying that Olivia Newton-John is the star of Xanadu. Even critics like Roger Ebert, who called the film “a mushy and limp musical fantasy”, could not help but praise Newton-John for her “high spirits” throughout the movie. Both in and out of character, her bubbly optimism is what pushes the film forward, as her character Kira returns to Earth to inspire Danny McGuire to dream all over again, and to inspire Sonny for the first time… as well as fall in love with him.
The big twist in Xanadu comes when it is revealed that Kira is actually a muse named Terpsichore, who was summoned when Sonny threw one of his paintings out of a window in a fit of frustration. The odd thing is, Terpsichore is actually the muse of dance and chorus, so why was she brought to life by a painting? Not only that, but why would she bring painter Sonny on board to build a dance venue in the first place? This confusion is only heightened when you realise that in the Broadway musical adaptation, Kira is revealed to be Clio instead, the muse of Lyre playing, which has even less to do with Sonny’s character.
It led to the creation of the Razzies
Xanadu wasn’t always destined to become the over-the-top, neon-drenched flop that we’ve come to love. In the beginning, it was conceived as a sweet and small love story between two roller-skaters, which no doubt could have been very successful. However, as more stars agreed to come on board, more studio involvement and oversight was needed, and both the budget and plot ballooned into something far bigger. The addition of Greek gods, Gene Kelly and Electric Light Orchestra all came later, and by that point it was too late to rein the project back in.
We should be grateful that Xanadu got so out of control though, as without it we never would have gotten the Golden Raspberry Awards. Creator of the Razzies John J.B Wilson was inspired to create an awards show dishonouring Hollywood after sitting through a double-feature of Xanadu and Can’t Stop the Music, another musical comedy that loosely portrayed itself as a Village People biopic. Can you blame him after sitting through those two movies back-to-back?
It was Gene Kelly’s last-ever film role
If Xanadu has a saving grace, it’s Gene Kelly. The Hollywood actor’s pedigree elevates the movie whenever he’s on-screen, giving the film a warm retro feel that would be missing if it were all hair metal bands and aerobics outfits. In the few dance scenes he gets, Kelly seems overjoyed to be able to pull out his beloved moves, and his facial expressions convey the fact that, in his head, he is dancing in a classic movie musical several decades earlier. This means it does sometimes feel as if he is acting in a completely different movie, but that only adds to the charm.
The strange thing is, when Xanadu was made Gene Kelly was just shy of 70 years old, and he never made another movie after it. Though he sometimes appeared as himself in projects such as That’s Dancing and That’s Entertainment, Danny McGuire was the last character he ever played, and the final full stop at the end of his legacy. How odd that Kelly would choose such an 80s cheese-fest to be his final contribution to cinema, but how sweet that he got to end his film career reprising a character that he had first played all the way back in the early 40s.
There’s a Don Bluth-animated sequence
As well as having a plot so thin and muddled that it can feel indecipherable at times, Xanadu also adds every extra element you can think of to make the film feel truly dream-like and surreal. As if the musical number where the 40s and the 80s combine by locking together two segments of a moving stage platform wasn’t enough, Xanadu also features extended modern dance sequences, beautiful women transforming into glowing orbs and lighting up the Hollywood sign with their presence, and a traditionally animated sequence drawn by the legendary Don Bluth.
Don Bluth is a beloved animator best known for creating All Dogs Go to Heaven, The Secret of NIMH and An American Tail, so it’s probably fair to say that the original audience of Xanadu didn’t expect to be treated to his work when they sat down in the cinema. Despite that, the movie features an extended sequence in which Kira and Sonny explore a magical animated world, transforming into everything from Thumbelina-sized versions of themselves, to birds, to brightly-coloured fish with eyeliner and pouty lips. As if that wasn’t wild enough, Kira’s bird form is still wearing leg-warmers despite both being animated and not wearing any other clothes. Because it’s the 80s, obviously.
It was adapted into a Marvel comic
Xanadu features a lot of spandex, a man who confronts a jealous and mean god, and an elderly mentor whose glory days are behind him. So in other words, you could argue that Xanadu has a lot in common with a superhero movie. Maybe that’s why Marvel Comics decided to adapt Xanadu into one of their Marvel Comics Super Special editions, alongside other stories featuring characters like Conan the Barbarian, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Battlestar Galactica.
Xanadu was the 17th issue in the 41-issue run of comics, and pretty much retold the movie. Only one change was made, and that was making it far more obvious that Sonny painted the mural of the muses that Kira is brought to life from, a mural that they then use as a portal between Earth and the world of the Gods.
The soundtrack was done by Electric Light Orchestra
Usually, in a movie musical, all the songs are sung by the characters in the film, whether they’re singing about the true love they wish they could find, or how much they just love being the villain. Lots of the songs in Xanadu are sung by Olivia Newton-John from Kira’s perspective, even if the lyrics don’t have much to do with the plot, but, in a baffling twist, almost half are sung and performed instead by the Electric Light Orchestra.
The soundtrack is shared between Newton-John and E.L.O, with title track Xanadu being sung by Newton-John while being backed up by the band. The collaboration obviously worked, as the Xanadu title track managed to reach number one in the UK singles chart, but it’s sonically odd to constantly jump between Olivia Newton-John’s bubbly pop and the layered guitars of the Electric Light Orchestra.