The Legend of 'Xanadu'
How a cult favorite has endured four decades
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, a stately pleasure-dome decree: Where Alph the sacred river ran, through caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea.” - Samuel Taylor Coleridge
On August 8, 1980 the musical fantasy Xanadu starring Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly and Michael Beck opened in theatres nationwide. While this may not mean much to some, it was a major event in my formative years.
My summer of 1980 was filled with anxious anticipation for Olivia Newton-John’s feature film follow-up to the mega-hit Grease, although I had not yet seen what went on to become Olivia’s iconic portrayal of the meek and mild Sandy character. While I enjoyed a good movie, my attention was focused on the musical soundtrack of the upcoming film, which I’d read was to feature an entire side of ONJ tunes, plus half an album’s worth of tracks by Electric Light Orchestra. By this time, I’d long been an Olivia fan, but now I was at the height of my fandom for ELO. Therefore, the Xanadu soundtrack was a highly coveted treasure of jewels by two of my favorite artists.
I remember watching an episode of the Midnight Special hosted by ONJ, that featured her performing her current hit single “Magic” (the lead-off track from the soundtrack), as well as a mesmerizing rendition of the yet to be released ballad “Suspended in Time” (now my all-time favorite ONJ track), as well as showing an enticing clip of Xanadu. After seeing that, I was totally captivated. I remember having trouble getting to sleep that night as visions of the movie raced through my head. I bought the soundtrack album the next day and was riveted by all ten tracks. Needless to say, I’d become well acquainted by the movie’s soundtrack by the time Xanadu hit theatres.
After a long summer of expectation, August 8th finally arrived and a school mate (a huge ONJ fan) and myself went to the cineplex on opening day and watched Xanadu four times. We were dropped off by our parents for the first showing and stayed through the rest of the afternoon. I was so blown away by the magic of Xanadu and all of its glittering brilliance, we returned the following day and repeated the experience. This became a weekly ritual as we spent every Saturday and Sunday afternoon of August 1980 repeatedly viewing the hypnotic spell Kira had cast upon us. That summer, I ended up viewing Xanadu for a total of 26 times on the big screen. Ah, the enchanted days of youthful musical fantasies.
Both Xanadu and its wonderful soundtrack have always remained tucked away into a special little corner of my childhood, which I’ve often revisited fondly throughout my adulthood. Olivia’s transcendental “Magic” and “Suspended in Time” continue to transport my mind back to that wonderful summer of naïve adolescence, which all too soon disappeared into young adulthood. The genius of John Farrar’s songs he contributed to Xanadu feel every bit as iconic as the two mega-hits he composed for Grease. Jeff Lynne managed to compose an unforgettable title track, as well and four other masterpieces. I’m still enraptured by the exuberance of ELO’s “I’m Alive” and “All Over the World” alongside the wistfulness of “Don’t Walk Away.”
Sadly, this turned out to be Gene Kelly’s final film. Ironically, it was also the first and last time I’d ever seen him upon the big screen. Although his humble and likable character have stayed forever etched upon my brain. I loved that feeling of old-time musicals he brought back to life during the dance fantasy sequence of “Whenever You’re Away from Me.” That scene, along with the big band/rock hybrid of “Dancin’” (featuring The Tubes and ONJ’s three-part harmonies), helped to successfully turn Xanadu into an unforgettable musical fantasy. Such an imaginatively daring film like Xanadu could never be dreamt up nowadays, much less come to fruition. However, a musical comedy version opened on Broadway in 2007, but that show didn’t have the same vibe of the movie for me. So here's wishing a happy 41st anniversary to Xanadu: a place where not everybody dared to go.