Joe’s Blog

Archive for May, 2011

Xanadu (1980)

May 13, 2011 6:57 am


One of the downsides to being a fan of bad movies is that sometimes a movie has such a dizzyingly, mythically bad  reputation that watching it can only lead to disappointment that it doesn’t match up to your expectations. In recent years I’ve been let down by Mommie Dearest, Exorcist 2 and even Showgirls. None of these films, in my mind, reach the fridge-stinking fromage odour generated by, say, Rentadick (a completely laugh-free ‘comedy’ written by John Cleese I recently watched the first 40 minutes of before the thought of slinging the TV out the window made me turn it off). I guess most people just prefer to watch Hollywood crash and burn.

I had this fear for a short time whilst watching Xanadu recently. I needn’t have worried. Everything you’ve heard about how bad Xanadu is is true. And then some.

Plot-wise it’s as flimsy as one of the dresses the dancers wear: Young guy meets old guy… they open a roller disco. That’s pretty much it. Whilst this opens up endless possibilities for comedy, bizarrely that’s one avenue the makers decide not to go down. Instead they chuck in a ‘muse’ storyline, where young guy is guided by said muse, who, it turns out, also helped the old guy out back in the 40’s.

What should have been a bog standard, fad-chasing low budget piece of exploitation somehow ended up as a mega-bucks Hollywood production starring the then hottest female actress/singer, probably the greatest Hollywood hoofer there ever was, a soundtrack by one of the biggest band of the day (if that day had been a few years earlier) and a guy with the looks and acting ability of Joe Dallesandro without the redeeming feature of a crotch you stick on a Rolling Stones cover.

In actuality Sonny is played by a plank of wood called Michael Beck who had made a bit of a splash as the lead in The Warriors.  Whilst in that film, a large ensemble cast seemed to paper over his acting deficiencies, here is is completely overshadowed by just about everyone, including a mural.

It all begins blandly, but not exactly appallingly, as we are introduced to Sonny, who recreates album covers for marketing materials. He had a dream to strike out as an artist but has gone crawling back to the day job with his tail between his legs. When we first meet him he is sketching a woman who looks suspiciously like Olivia Neutron-Bomb. Appalled by this he tears it up and chucks it out the window. The shredded paper appears to ‘awaken’ a mural of eight women. They dance about a bit in dresses designed to show off their pants as much as possible (including one who appears to be wearing a flesh coloured body stocking that gives her the appearance of the kind of anatomy you only see on Barbie dolls and Action Man) .

These ladies all shoot off into the stratosphere, except Ms Neutron-Bomb (Kira), who hangs about Venice Beach on her roller skates, ending up on an album cover that Sonny is replicating, and then leading him into an ‘hilarious’ chase sequence where he steals a bike and ends up crashing into the sea. This will not be the comedy highlight thankfully.

During this sequence we are also introduced to Danny McBride (Gene Kelly, exuding more effortless charm and charisma than the whole cast do in the entire film). he’s a self-confessed ‘beach bum’ who turns out to have been a Glen Miller-style big band leader in the ’40s. He’s got bags of cash he doesn’t know what to do with, so of course he decides he wants to open a club with this strange young man he just met on the beach.

They decide to site it in an abandoned wrestling auditorium (!) where Sonny had his first proper meeting with Kira. Although neither knows it (or at least it’s not clear in the film that they know) Kira was also Danny’s muse in his big band days…

It’s here that banality takes a rather special turn into downright crazy-apeshit bonkers, as we enter Truly Horrific Sequence #1: Danny and Sonny both have their own ideas about what the club should like. Danny wants an old-style jazz club; Sonny wants a truly bizarre … thing… that seems to combine the worst aspects of disco, punk, new wave and rejects from Kenny Everett’s Hot Gossip dance troupe. Here we get a startlingly bad ‘mash up’ of jazz and nasty synth pop (the band are played by California punks, The Tubes). What this sequence achieves in terms of how the club will look isn’t entirely clear, as the final result looks like neither. But we’ll come back to that.


Sadly, this won’t be the last time we see this lot

 Truly Horrific Sequence #2: and the point where I nearly turned off, just because I couldn’t believe what they were putting Gene Kelly through. He’s given a makeover. But this is no ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ kooky sequence. To the tune of ELO’s ‘All Over the World’ (though the choreography seems to have been blocked for a completely different tune, if any tune at all) Gene is subjected to some of the worst outfits seen in cinema history, has the indignity of emerging from a dressing room whose curtains are made to look like a pair of women’s legs, and those bloody dancers are back, prancing around on trolleys and shelving units, wearing Adam Ant cast-offs. For some reason a dancer is made up to look like a spider and emits a tiger roar.

Gene kelly and legs akimbo

Gene Kelly’s audition for Legs Akimbo did not go well

After this, you wonder just how bad things can get from here. Trust me, they save the best until last: Truly Horrific Sequence #3 is the club’s opening. I’m not going to describe it, because, quite frankly, I don’t think you’d believe me. All I’ll say is it features a 15 minute medley of song and dance; Kira changes outfits just by sheer will; Danny disappears and reappears; and Sonny continues to look confused and on the verge of tears.

Michael and ONJ

This is the most acting that Michael Beck does

And then it ends. I swear the ending is one of the most arbitrary since Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It literally just ends.

It’s not hard to work out what’s wrong with Xanadu. For a start it’s a film about a roller disco that doesn’t feature a roller disco until the last 15 minutes. It’s a musical in which the lead actor doesn’t sing (his one number, a duet from Neutron-Bomb, is dubbed by (the horror!) Cliff Richard.

Stylistically it’s all over the shop: in trying to straddle itself between old-time musicals (of the kind Kelly helped create and dominate) and a trendy ‘new-wave’ look, it comes across just hideously contrived. It probably looked dated before it was even released.

From a technical point of view you have wonder what was going on behind the scenes too. You have probably the cinema’s most accomplished dancer, and yet his sequences are directed and edited in such a way that most of the time you can’t see his feet! (The duet with Kira early on demonstrates this best; it also looks like it was edited with a sledgehammer) How he manages to still put in a decent performance playing opposite the charisma vacuum that is Michael Beck, should have earned him an Oscar nomination at least.

Gene and ONJ

Gene is doing some amazing tap-dancing here…
you just can’t see it

Oddly, Neutron-Bomb comes out of it pretty well. Her songs are bland without being unpleasant, she obviously has a good voice, and her slightly detached acting style actually helps the character.

The rest of the soundtrack is good too (the Cliff duet being the exception). The title song is rightly a camp classic now, and ELO fans are treated to some of their best work. Whether they all fit the film is a matter of conjecture. OK, they don’t. At all.

Depending on how you approach it, Xanadu is either a complete sensory ambush, or perfect post-pub entertainment. To modern, cynical eyes such as mine, it’s one of those films where you sit there slack-jawed going “what were they thinking?”. I haven’t even mentioned the ‘out of nowhere’ cartoon sequence, the scene where Kira pleads her ‘parents’ not to take her away from Sonny (a sequence which looks like an effects test for Tron), the fact that opening night of the club, the place seems to have more paid-for dancers than customer, and Kira’s astonishing exit which looks like she’s farted her way into the stratosphere.

Variety magazine famously labelled it ‘Xana-don’t’. That’s a bit harsh. It does need to be seen by everyone. Just once though. Not three times like I did to write this.

Fact: Xanadu was produced by Joel Silver and Lawrence Gordon, who would latter make Die Hard

Fact: Xanadu was Gene Kelly’s last film, though most people have the decency not to mention that