Xanadu: The 1980 Olivia Newton-John Flop Everyone Must See
The 1980 film Xanadu combines Greek gods, neon lights, Olivia Newton John, and the plight of a lowly music industry painter. It’s hard to wrap your head around just how mind bogglingly bad this movie is. Aside from the soundtrack by ELO (which is legitimately great), the film itself is incomprehensible. It follows a painter who falls in love with a muse named Terpsichore (or Kira for short) played by Olivia Newton John. Along the way he decides to start a dance club with an aging Gene Kelly, who does his best to make sense of this insane film.
Even with its sad neon effects, weird cartoon interstitial, and nonsensical plot, Xanadu is extremely watchable. You won’t be able to follow what’s happening but you really don’t have to. Xanadu isn’t so much a movie but an experience.
What is a Xanadu?
Conceptually, Xanadu fits right into the world of 1940s fantasy musicals. Aside from starring Gene Kelly, the film is more or less a straight remake of 1947’s Down To Earth just with more roller skating. Down To Earth itself is a sequel to the film Here Comes Mr. Jordan which makes the existence of this movie all the more confusing. The film is so committed to the ‘40s story aesthetics that it begins with a very long shot of the old Universal logo before fading into a neon dance scene that has a great ELO song and some not so great effects.
The roller skating is one of the more confusing aspects of the film. After the movie’s intro, Olivia Newton John roller skates through the park where she slides right up to our main character, Sonny Malone, played by The Warriors star Michael Beck. She plants a smooch on him before disappearing. It’s one of those classic movie moments that don’t really translate to a modern audience, especially when Malone just says “what the…” before watching Olivia Newton John skate away. That's about as charismatic as he gets.
The roller disco club in the movie is named Xanadu, a fantasy land made popular in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1816 poem "Kubla Khan." And yes, the poem is quoted in the film.
This is Gene Kelly’s final film role
Gene Kelly is such a golden era legend (and legitimately amazing dancer) that it's a drag that Xanadu is his cinematic swan song. He’s not bad in the movie by any means. Kelly brings everything he has to the neon roller disco musical, it's just so far out of control that he can’t course correct with his rakish smile and fancy footwork.
As Danny Maguire, Kelly is like a captain going down with the ship. He throws himself into ever dance scene and even plays along with Michael Beck’s statuesque performance as Sonny Malone. Even though Xanadu was a total disaster, Kelly was pure class and never trashed the movie. In 2012, Olivia Newton John told The Daily Herald that she was honored to work with such an important cinematic figure:
He was lovely. I still can’t believe I danced with Gene Kelly. How lucky am I that I’ve been in movies where I’ve danced with two of the greatest dancers of all time – with Gene Kelly and John Travolta? I never would have thought that because I had two left feet growing up.
The music is transcendent
While the rest of the movie is a fever dream, the music of Xanadu is genuinely amazing. If you’re into pop disco the Olivia Newton John tracks are great, and if you like baroque pop (or just having a good time in general) then ELO’s songs will blow your mind. Their version of "Xanadu" kind of feels like Ziggy Stardust era Bowie, and "All Over The World" is about as perfect a pop song that’s ever been written.
In spite of writing some truly knock out songs, ELO’s Jeff Lynne claims that he’s never seen the movie. He told Rolling Stone:
I wrote half the songs, though I’ve never seen the thing. I don’t suppose anybody else has, either. It was supposed to be really bad. I don’t think I’ll ever see the movie after reading the reviews.
Even though Xanadu has reached cult status around the world, Lynne probably wouldn’t be happy to know that people love the movie because it’s so bad.
The effects are something else
By the time Xanadu was released there were two Star Wars movies in the theaters, establishing George Lucas as one of the most important special effects wizards of the day, and 2001: A Space Odyssey had long ago convinced the American public that Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing. Xanadu doesn’t continue that legacy. What it does do is throw neon around Olivia Newton John whenever she’s doing something kind of magical.
Weird, faux Flash Gordon effects aside, there’s an animated sequence in the movie that’s really gorgeous. Animated by Don Bluth, who went on to make The Secret of Nimh, An American Tail, and a treasure trove of animated classics. It’s jarring when the film turns to animation, but it’s a really cool sequence.
Xandu was too late to the party
When Xanadu was released in August of 1980 the world had turned on disco, so a movie about a roller skating muse who convinces two friends to open a disco club was a little behind the curve. This was just a year after Disco Demolition Night in Chicago, so it’s safe to say that anti-disco backlash was in full swing. Weirdly enough, the soundtrack went double platinum in the U.S. and managed five Top 20 hits. Once again, the music in this movie is really special. However, the movie itself didn’t fare as well with viewers or critics. Roger Ebert gave the film two stars, Esquire reviewed the film saying, “Xana-don’t,” and Variety called it "a stupendously bad film whose only salvage is the music."
The Golden Raspberry awards were started just for Xanadu
There’s an award show for everything, including the worst movies of the year. In 1980 film critic John J.B. Wilson was so horrified by what he saw on the screen when he watched Xanadu that he decided to give out awards for the movies that made his brain hurt -- and so the Golden Raspberry Awards were born. Xanadu’s director Robert Greenwald “won” worst director and the film was nominated for worst: picture, screenplay, actor, actress, original song, and musical. Woof. Wilson explained to Time:
I happened to pay 99 cents for a double feature of Can’t Stop the Music and Olivia Newton-John in Xanadu and was refused my money back afterward.
You should really watch Xanadu
Now that you know all of this roller disco mind melter’s dirty little secrets you’re fully prepared to go into the movie with an open heart. It’s a fun movie that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it doesn’t need to. It’s just a good time and genuinely weird because it doesn’t think it’s weird. If you’re looking for a new cult classic in your life take a trip to Xanadu.