'Xanadu' - Olivia Newton-John's Underappreciated Bit of Magic
Second Chances #42
Hi, and welcome back to Second Chances where the maligned, forgotten, and ignored inspire me to honor a music icon.
Okay, I have been teasing that I would one day cover the 1980 disco musical Xanadu ever since I wrote my piece about Razzie picks worth watching four years ago. With how busy my life is between two jobs and multiple side projects, it kept getting pushed off over and over again. However, with the recent passing of the film's star, the wonderful Olivia Newton-John, I decided that I just had to hunker down and finally do it, especially since all of the tributes to her only seem to focus on Grease and her pop songs. Xanadu may be a polarizing film that (along with Can't Stop The Music) created the Razzies in the first place, but I can't help but enjoy it.
I would give a spoiler warning before discussing the plot of a movie, but the plot here is paper-thin and not really the point, anyway. The movie is about an artist named Sonny, played by Michael Beck AKA Swan from The Warriors. After a failed attempt to freelance, he returns to his prior job painting album cover replicas, a job he hated. However, that day, a mysterious woman later identified as Kira (Newton-John) keeps popping into his life over and over again, even showing up on an album cover he was tasked to replicate. While searching for Kira, Sonny meets Danny McGuire, played by the dance legend Gene Kelly in his final role. McGuire is a former big band leader from the 40s who, after years in the construction business, decides he wants to open a new music venue. Kira spends the movie trying to help Sonny and Danny realize their dreams together.
Like I said, the plot is razor-thin, but that can be forgiven. This musical is more about spectacle than anything else, and on that level, it succeeds. Stylistically, the musical numbers are the most diverse I had ever seen in a single movie. From the simplicity of Gene and Olivia dancing in a ballroom to a big band meets New Wave mash-up to an animated sequence directed by the legendary Don Bluth, no two numbers are alike. While the staging, camerawork, and editing can be rather messy (Robert Greenwald even won the first Razzie for "Worst Director"), there's still a charm to all of them. Funny enough, even though I can notice things like long takes of just skating in circles and the very clear use of blue-screen (like in the screencap right under the title), I can forgive them due to the imagination and fun cheesiness everywhere. While the execution may be a "C" at best, I definitely give an "A" for effort.
The performances were hit or miss. Gene Kelly, even at his old age, still had the buckets of charisma that he had in his heyday, and seeing him dance never stopped being a joy to watch. By contrast, Michael Beck just didn't feel like he wanted to be in the movie. His complaining to his boss Simpson never felt real nor did his joy around Kira. His performance was just so wooden, well-deserving of the "Worst Actor" Razzie nomination (FYI, he lost to Neil Diamond in The Jazz Singer). Olivia Newton-John, rather appropriately, fell between the two. She had all the charm she was known for, but the writing made her sound a bit flaky. However, whenever she flashed her million-dollar smile and started singing, all was forgiven.
Of course, I can't forget to mention the music. While the movie just failed to break even at the box office, the soundtrack was a massive success. Almost evenly split between Olivia Newton-John and the Electric Light Orchestra, the songs run through just about every feel you can imagine. Olivia's tracks range from warm torch ballads like "Suddenly" (which is #27 on my 100 favorite songs list) to her joyous duet with Gene Kelly for "Whenever You're Away From Me" to her pop smash "Magic". ELO's input added an extra ethereal feel to the movie with "I'm Alive", "The Fall", and the show-stopping title track which Olivia sings. Even separate from the movie, the music is an absolute joy to listen to.
Xanadu is not a movie for everyone. It is as gaudy as the disco era itself. The story is thin enough to be anorexic. Its visuals can be very messy at times. However, the music is always wonderful to hear, and the musical numbers are a sight to behold, for sheer craziness if nothing else. This movie has stuck with me more and more as I got older. Its main theme is following your dreams, something everyone can relate to. Adulthood has often threatened to derail my desire to reach for the stars. There have been plenty of times that I wondered if I should just give up on what I truly want to do. Whenever I get to thinking I should just put my dreams out to pasture, I can just plug in Xanadu (the movie or the soundtrack) and feel my ambition recharge. So, thank you, Olivia, for helping me keep my dreams alive for more than forty years. Rest in peace.
Any other thoughts on this bit of disco joy? Let me know, and take care of yourselves.
About the Creator
Twelve years writing about games, movies, music, etc. and counting! At least one new article every month! I'm also writing movies, writing a children's book & hosting the gaming channel "Cool Media" on YouTube! Enjoy & find me on Twitter!
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Writing reflected the title & theme
This was a very enjoyable read and I loved it!