Xanadu: The ’80s movie musical that starred Olivia Newton-John & Gene Kelly

Xanadu movie poster

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Here, take a look back at Xanadu — the ’80s movie that has become known as a campy cult classic. The fantasy musical featured “Grease” star Olivia Newton-John, the legendary Gene Kelly, and a roller rink.

Great drama not part of “Xanadu” (1980)

by Mike Deupree

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of musical movies, those that use music to help tell a story, and those that have just enough of a story to get the performers from one song to another. “Xanadu” is in the latter category.

Olivia Newton-John plays a muse, Kira, who comes to life out of a mural to inspire a young artist, Sonny Malone (Michael Beck).

Sonny meets a rich, retired clarinet player, Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly), who is still pining for his lost love, a girl whose picture looks suspiciously like Kira.

Xanadu: The '80s campy classic movie musical
While Sonny and Danny work on creating a huge new nightclub called “Xanadu,” Sonny and Kira fall in love. That poses a problem, since muses don’t stay around permanently. Eventually, the crisis is resolved in a big production number.

It isn’t exactly the kind of thing that lends itself to great dramatic performances. Beck and Newton-John are OK, and it’s nice to see Kelly hoofing again, even though his voice seems a lot older than he does.

The music is provided by Newton-John and by the Electric Light Orchestra. Although the opener, “I’m Alive,” is classic ELO, and a couple of other songs are above average, most of the score is louder than it is lively.

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The movie is very colorful, with bright costumes. People tend to turn into flashes of neon and disappear over the horizon. The production numbers lean heavily to things like having dummies suddenly start acting like people (a 180-degree turn of what usually happens in musicals).

Everyone, even Gene Kelly at times, seems to travel primarily by roller skate.

Singin’ in the Rain,” it ain’t.

“Xanadu,” with Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly and Michael Beck. A Lawrence Gordon production, released by Universal. At the Eastown Cinema II Theatre. Rating: PG – Parental guidance suggested.

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“Xanadu” movie trailer

YouTube video

Movie review: ‘Xanadu’ fun, but one muses at the casting

by Jack Mathews

Having a taste for 1940s-style musical fantasies is sort of like having a taste for wax lips and cherry-ade. But I can’t help myself. Give me Gene Kelly dancing with an animated partner, or Fred Astaire with a hat tree, and to hell with art imitating life.

It’s a prejudice born of growing up in the first television generation, an impressionable decade of weekends spent in front of little blinking screens, choosing between the Durango Kid. the Bowery Boys and MGM musicals.

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I watched all three (and if they ever do a remake with the “Durango Kid.” I’ll be there, too). but mostly I watched MGM musicals. and it didn’t bother me a bit that the acting was bad, the dialogue silly, and that the story often didn’t make sense.

Bear this bias in mind, because I may be the only movie buff you know who can sit happily through “Xanadu,” Universal Pictures’ risky reprise of the ’40s musical fantasy.

Whether planned or not, “Xanadu” makes less sense, has sillier dialogue, and the acting is many times worse than it was in any of the films it pays homage to.


But that’s OK. The music, a blend of ’80s pop rock and ’40s big-band sound, is grand; the choreography is chrome-plated tackiness (just right) and there is enough glitz and glitter to give you a cornea burn.

“Xanadu” operates within a nifty framework. There is a ’40s musician (Gene Kelly) who wants to own a nightclub like the one he had 35 years ago; there is a struggling young painter (Michael Beck) who hungers for artistic integrity.

And there is the Muse (Olivia Newton-John), one of the nine daughters of Zeus, who is periodically sent to earth to make someone’s dream come true.

No surprises in store. The painter falls in love with the Muse — and she, against the rules, with him — and they, along with Gene Kelly, build an Olympian time-warp disco called “Xanadu,” where the music and dance of the ’40s and ’80s are deliriously wedded.

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It is easier, using today’s standards, to point up the film’s weaknesses than its strengths.

For a fantasy, the movement seems curiously restricted — which may be attributable to the almost exclusively stage background of director Robert Greenwald, making his feature film debut.

The dialogue is absolute glop, embarrassingly dumb, sentimental and trite, just like the old days. If it were a young Gene Kelly and Vera-Ellen uttering those lines, it would have been perfect.

But it is, unfortunately, an old Gene Kelly throwing some of them off, and you can only wish he’d had better advice than to join this wispy nostalgia. Kelly can no longer dance with any gusto, though he tries. And whatever blemishes his acting had in his heydey, they are magnified now.

In one scene where Kelly examines the lines in his face and talks in hushed, maudlin tones to a past lover, the seconds become minutes. Hurry, Gene, sing … dance … anything but this.

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It is in the casting that “Xanadu” fails to satisfy even the staunchest defenders of camp.

I can barely abide Olivia Newton-John anywhere other than on an elevator speaker, and it seems a greater miracle than being kissed by a Muse that Michael Beck, with only a lead in the gang movie “The Warriors” behind him, was even hired.

Beck looks lost in every scene — dancing, roller skating, taking his lines way too seriously.

Newton-John, canary-sweet as her voice may be, is not the girl of most men’s dreams. and neither her dancing nor her acting gets us over the feeling of having been shortchanged when Zeus handed out the Muses.

Despite these major distractions, “Xanadu” has enough good music and visual fireworks to make it fun. The special effects used to make the Muses come to life, sheathed in incandescent light and commuting like colorfully streaking comets between Mt. Olympus and earth, are terrific.

Super special effects in 1980s Xanadu movie

Although the editing is often choppy and the cuts too gimmicky, “Xanadu” is studiously fast-paced, and is loud and flashy enough to hush a Boy Scout convention.

The ever-present music, half created by Newton-John’s regular producer, half by the Electric Light Orchestra, is “Xanadu’s” greatest strength.

The most original material in the film is a dream sequence in which the mellow music of the ’4os is gradually blended with the electric sound of the ’8os until the two sounds – as well as two eras of dance – work together.

“Xanadu” is not going to generate a rash of ’40s musical fantasies, but for those of us who enjoyed the easy high we got from the originals, it’s a nice reminder.

MORE: The movie ‘Grease’ cashes in on Travolta & nostalgia (1978)

The Xanadu musical extravaganza
Center front: Fee Waybill of The Tubes

Olivia Newton John and Michael Beck in the movie “Xanadu”

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Xanadu theme song video

YouTube video

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