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Cult Movies and Musicals & Performing Arts movie directed by Robert Greenwald

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A Flawed Piece of Paradise

  • Feb 28, 2006
  • by
I'm afraid my recommendation for the musical fantasy "Xanadu" is based solely on my own personal tastes. When analyzed from a strictly cinematic point of view, it is a pretty bad film: the performances were less than stellar, the story was weak, the dialogue was awful, and the ending was completely ill fitting (not to mention nonsensical). And let's not forget the special effects, which are so unflatteringly dated. It's easy to see why the critics had a field day with this and why it did so poorly at the box office.

So then why did I enjoy it so much, and why do so many others enjoy it as well? I suppose most of that is due to the music. The soundtrack certainly pays homage to the synthesizer-laden pop ballads and the generally upbeat rhythms that the 1980s were known for. And despite a bland and clichd story, the songs are quite catchy; it's no wonder the soundtrack found its niche on radio, putting Olivia Newton-John and Electric Light Orchestra back into the mainstream with hits like "I'm Alive," "Magic," and the film's title song. "Xanadu" is like "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" in that its music makes it appealing; without it, it would be one of the most miserable movie going experiences out there.

What we have here is a classic Love Conquers All story, a fable about a boy and a girl from two very different worlds overcoming all obstacles to be together. Sounds familiar, right? In the case of this movie, the boy is a human being and the girl is a muse, a mythical Greek figure meant to inspire. When down-on-his-luck artist Sonny Malone (Michael Beck) abandons all hope at the prospect of his dreams coming true, he settles for dead end work as a painter of enlarged album covers (the kind that used to be hung outside of music stores).

This prompts the awakening of all nine muses; for whatever reason, they come to life within a mural on a building located near the Los Angeles coastline. It's a highly choreographed number, and they are all surrounded by a bright purple glow. Afterwards, they all go their separate ways while one stays behind. Here enters Kira (Olivia Newton-John), the muse assigned to help Sonny on his way. At first she teases him with small glimpses as she skates along the sidewalk, always with a cheery smile on her face. They finally end up meeting in an abandoned wrestling rink, the famous L.A. landmark (since destroyed) designed in the Art Deco style. It is there that the magic, for everyone involved, begins to unfold.

Another pivotal character is Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly), a former jazz musician who longs to return to his swinging nightclub days. He crosses paths with Sonny on the beach, and that's where Danny's character is established; he's supposed to be a modernized version of the Wise Old Man, an experienced person who can give Sonny meaningful advice. But there's a twist: his desire for the good ol' days brings Kira into his life as well as Sonny's. This is first noticed in a 1940s style dance sequence in which Danny fantasizes he's tap dancing with Kira. The connection is never adequately explained, but enough of it is revealed to get the point across.

After all is said and done, it's decided that a new nightclub will open. It's called Xanadu, and its theme is a very eclectic mix of the '40s and '80s, with zoot suits and Art Deco architecture mingling with roller disco light effects. It's an odd place, but it's also lively and entertaining, and it offers a wide variety of musical styles. At one point Kira and her sisters perform a medley, ranging from rock 'n' roll to country/western. On the one hand it's incredibly inappropriate while on the other it's so campy that you just can't help but watch.

Before the club opens, Sonny and Danny scout locations for its site. As you could have probably guessed, they pick the abandoned wrestling rink. (Why else would the filmmakers have Sonny and Kira meet there? For convenience's sake?) Pacing through the gigantic, empty main room, they begin to envision what kind of club they'd prefer to see. What follows is a sort of musical competition. In the right corner, we have Danny's 1940s jazz club, full of class, style, and elegance. In the left corner, we have Sonny's 1980s rock club, electrically charged and pulsing with energy (with a cameo by The Tubes as the band). The visions keep going back and forth until they merge, hence the club's final theme mentioned earlier. The choreography in this scene is so frenetic and cluttered that it became difficult to determine what they were trying to accomplish. On the other hand, it was a fun scene, and the music they play during it is just dancey enough to get you off your seat.

The list of things that are wrong with this movie is a particularly long one. Yes, some of them are so obvious that they're just begging to be pointed out and mocked (like a completely unnecessary animated sequence by Don Bluth). But underneath all the flaws, there's also a bright, shiny charm, one that comes from the film's message of following your dreams no matter what. It's an overused and unenlightening message, of course, but the fact that it rings true makes it worthwhile. (How often have you been told something you already knew but needed to hear anyway?) And I could see the potential it had, especially since it has such great music.

Let me put it this way: I've certainly seen worse movies than "Xanadu." It may be light and airy, but it's pleasingly light and airy. If a serious film is what you seek, then this is definitely not something to consider; that kind of attitude will only leave you asking, "What does Samuel Colridge's vision of Xanadu have to do with a time warped roller disco?" But if you're looking to escape from the real world and lose yourself in pure fantasy and music, then by all means, give it a go. It's the kind of film that doesn't pressure you to analyze it too deeply or to take it too seriously. And thank goodness for that; sometimes, we're just not in the mood.

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More Xanadu reviews
review by . March 17, 2002
posted in Movie Hype
XANADU is a harmless, fluffy little musical from the 80's, and is a guilty pleasure movie that sits right up there with DIRTY DANCING and FOOTLOOSE in terms of being dorky but charming.Let's take a trip back in time...to a time when legwarmers, headbands and stonewash jeans were in vogue....oh no! It's the 80's!XANADU tells the story of aspiring artist Sonny Malone (Michael Beck - THE WARRIORS) who has the dream but lacks the spirit to make the dream a reality. Enter roller-skating muse, Kira (Olivia …
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Chris Pandolfi ()
Ranked #5
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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About this movie


A wimpy remake of an already anemic movie (the 1947 Rita Hayworth vehicleDown to Earth), this glitzy musical from 1980 improbably stars Olivia Newton-John as a heavenly muse sent here to help open a roller-derby disco. Gene Kelly is mixed up in this well-meaning but goofy effort to fuse nostalgia with late-'70s glitter-ball trendiness, and he looks just plain silly. Directed by Robert Greenwald, the film doesn't even work as decent kitsch.--Tom Keogh
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Director: Robert Greenwald
Genre: Cult Movies, Music, Musical
DVD Release Date: July 20, 1999
Runtime: 93 minutes
Studio: Universal Studios
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