[film] XANADU (1980)

I’m totally prepared for other people to give me shit for my tastes in film on this site — I’ve put up with plenty enough about it on the Hellenistai forum already, so it’s not going to surprise me to see any here, so I’m going to get the hard part over with already:

I really love Xanadu.

There, I’ve said it.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is brill lyric film on the level of Derek Jarman, nor do I even consider it a perfect musical, like 1982’s film version of Annie (which there is absolutely nothing wrong with) or 1974’s Rocky Horror Picture Show (which is fucking perfect, and you are not going to argue with me about this); what Xanadu is an enjoyable modern myth with a very simple plot (which is all most ancient mythology ever had, if you’ve being perfectly honest), adequate music of a disco-prog sort of idiom, and roller-choreography that everybody’s favourite inescapable troll-like theatre producer, Andrew Lloyd Weber, only wishes he could have mastered with Starlight Express.

The Nostalgia Chick has criticised the unique Universal Studios animation sequence at the beginning of the film, and while I admit that I can’t even make up some intellectual wank to explain it, if you’ve seen it, you have to agree that it’s a pretty neat little piece of stop-motion, and some of the most flawless I’ve ever seen. When the actual opening happens, we get a shot of Gene Kelly, now in his sixties, sitting on a rock on a beach playing a clarinet — I swear the imagery here is referencing some painting I’ve seen before, but damned if I can remember the titles or painter. He’s playing some sad music, and then it cuts to a character we soon learn is Sonny, who’s apparently an artist. He’s working on some pieces, then finally tears one up and tosses the scraps out his window, lamenting that people like him aren’t allowed to dream. The paper glides along on some breezes and passes by a mural of the Nine Classic Muses, who spring to life and pop out of the mural in a dance number to the music of Electric Light Orchestra and with the addition of some Tron-like animation.

I really love the costuming in this dance sequence; it’s obvious to me that the costuming department was really trying to make it apparent that they were giving an updated look to the idea of ancient Greek clothes with this.

So, yeah, Olivia Newton-John’s character is then seen skating off, bumping into Sonny, planting a kiss on him, and then shaking off, leaving him to wonder if she was real or imagined.

Sonny then arrives at his place of employment, an art studio for a AirFlo Records where his job (in the dark ages prior to digital blow-ups) is to paint blown-up versions of album covers for the street displays at a Los Angeles record store (which, as of 2003, I know from seeing it myself, still utilises this form of advertisement). Sonny has an argument with his boss about artistic integrity, and is then handed an album by a fictional band called The Nine Sisters that features the strange girl who kissed him on the cover. Hew soon takes a long lunch to try and track her down, and in this endeavour, meets Kelly’s character, Danny McGuire. As Sonny and Danny are talking, the strange girl skates by, and Sonny, through a series of typical only-in-the-movies hijinks, ends up skating off a short pier and is then seen having coffee with Danny as he dries off.

Later, Sonny gets a ride from a friend and, apparently abandoning his former plans, impulsively has his friend let him off at the GORGEOUS art deco theatre that was on the cover of the Nine Sisters record. He lets himself inside, as the theatre has been abandoned, and discovers the girl inside and skating around. He tries to talk to her as she fades in and out of sight and flaunts the fact that she knows his name without him offering it to her. Before they part, he asks her name and she gives it as “Kira” before fading out again.

In the next scene, he’s wrapping up a delivery of paintings to the store just as Danny is leaving the store, and the two start talking and head back to Danny’s place where Sonny notices a photo of Kira with Danny’s things and listens to Danny’s story about losing the love of his life and letting his dreams die. Sonny and Danny, through the course of conversation agree to open up a club together, figuring it would be good for the two of them to do something that they both believe in rather than merely killing their time with Danny’s idleness and Sonny’s uninspiring work painting other people’s ideas. The scene ends with Danny left alone with his memories of being a clarinet player in a Big Band and his fleeting romance with the group’s girl singer.

The next scene is Sonny in his work studio, working on the Nine Sisters album painting, and “Kira” suddenly appears. Startled, but apparently unsuspicious, he tells her about his plans with Danny, and she suggests using the old theatre for the club. He scoffs, cos it’s been abandoned for years needs some serious work, but she nudges gently before they leave to get something to eat and then engage in a roller-disco sequence in a recording studio.

Actually, my only complaint about this film is the recording studio; this is the most unrealistic recording studio I’ve ever seen depicted in a film, but I don’t complain too much because really, the roller-choreography is pretty impressive. I’m also working with an assumption that the really gratuitous bits like this are actually “G-rated fucking”. Think about it: Two crazy kids out for a few hours, looking for some place “intimate” to be alone, it ends interrupted by Sonny’s employer, who accidentally sets off a button to make recorded and light-projected “fireworks” as the two leads skate off in a giggling scramble. They were doing it — TOTALLY doing it.

In the next scene, Sonny takes Danny to the theatre, and then there’s a less-gratuitous (and therefore less likely to be symbolic of Teh Smex) song-and-dance number featuring The [motherfucking] Tubes as Sonny and Danny imagine what they could do with the place; the business partnership is cemented, and Sonny goes back out to his car to get a torch and then “Kira” suddenly appears to recite a portion of the poem “Kubla Khan” to Danny, suggesting they name the club XANADU, which Sonny agrees to. Danny also makes vague comments on recognising “Kira”, who responds more vaguely, so he drops it and you’re left wondering if he’s figured out “Kira’s” true nature.

Next scene, Danny shares a bottle of champagne with “Kira” in celebration, and obviously wants to make their romance more intimate, but she’s evasive:

“But where do you live?”
“With my sisters.”
“And where’s that?”
“An apartment.”
“Where is this apartment?”
“On the second floor.”
“What’s your last name?”
“Same as my mother’s and father’s.”

Then kiss, and then there’s a gratuitous Don Bluth animation sequence, cos Don Bluth is awesome and, as my theory goes, they wanted to slip in more G-rated fucking (well, OK, PG for panty-lines and use of the words “hell” and “wise-ass”).

After this, Danny is passing out wine to the construction workers at the renovation, and then Sonny and “Kira” take him on a shopping montage, which is seemingly a bit gratuitous, but I really hope it’s not symbolic of fucking.

Shortly after this scene, Sonny and Kira walk back to his place, where she tells him she’s actually a Muse:

I come from Mount Helikon. I’m the daughter of Zeus. I have eight sisters. My real name is Terpsikore.

To prove to Sonny she’s not making this up, she alters a dictionary entry and the dialogue of a film on the television; she’s telling him all of this because while her work is done and she has to leave him, she’s fallen for him and apparently feels she owes him some honesty before leaving.

Next scene is Sonny brooding on the same rock we first saw Danny on, and Danny finds him there and figures he’s depressed about “Kira”/Terpsikore leaving; and this is where it becomes apparent that Danny’s had this figured out since the earlier scene, and he tells Sonny that “if she came here, then there’s a way to go there” and “dreams don’t just die, we kill them.”

Sonny eventually figures out how to break into the Divine realm, which I’ve always really loved: The depiction is abstract and minimal with a lot of neon Tron-imation, but you know, for me, that works. Sonny gets condescended to by Zeus while the female Divine voice, we’ll call Her Mnemosyne, cos that’s what works mythologically, argues with Zeus and reminds him that the mortal realm is very different before Sonny is sent back. Terpsikore then sings a sad song, which moves the gods to give her another night with Sonny.

Then the MASSIVE million-dollar-plus budgeted roller-choreography scene. No, really, this is fucking stellar. It’s long and it basically sums up the 1970s in music with ON-J’s song medley number, but it’s well-paced enough to forget how long it is when we finally see Sonny, back to sulking after the Muses have flittered away, and Danny calls over a cocktail waitress to get his friend a drink — a character also played by ON-J, but who apparently has no recollection of Sonny, so he decides to talk to her, and then the credits roll.


In all, it’s a very simple story, and the “message” seems to be “Don’t kill your dreams with despiar.” I love that this is apparently a story meant for young adults that portrays the Gods as an active part of this world, even if we don’t necessarily recognise them as such. It’s also a cute story without falling into the infantilising traps that Disney’s Hercules fell into, and without, in the end, rendering the Gods powerless, as the final season of Xena: Warrior Princess did — on no, these are gods that will give you a shove in the right direction, but won’t think twice about telling you that you’re asking for too much of them, and will ultimately see that maybe your dreams are worthless if you’re lonely; the Gods as portrayed in Xanadu are not only timeless and powerful, but obviously caring of those they see worth in.

Like I said, don’t expect a great epic of deep themes, but do expect to find things to like about it as a polytheist. It’s a perfectly adequate modern myth, in my opinion.

I haven’t seen the stage production based on this one yet, but what I’ve been able to pick up on from the Internet, well… to start, “Kira” is actually Klio, the Muse of History, and Her sisters are all evil and stuff, and there’s a Pegasus on the website, and I’m kind of horrified, to start. It also lacks The Tubes — whose appearance in the film may not be one of the high points, but it definitely speaks to the stageplay’s lacking cred that they’ll tour this while letting The Tubes play county fairs and at small Midwestern clubs for a smaller guarantee than Gallagher — but that’s another story for another time. As much as I love the theatre, just looking at how the playwrights altered the relevant mythology and the story established in the film, I can’t advocate it before the film; the film is respectful of the mythology where the play clearly is not, and the film shoots for a simple story where the play complicates things in what’s seemingly nothing more than an attempt to out-camp the film.

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One thought on “[film] XANADU (1980)

  1. Pingback: This looks Interesting: Psyche Rock Opera | Of Thespiae

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