The direct origins of Xanadu can be traced to the roller skating canal lined
streets of Venice Beach, California and to one of its residences, a
successful screenwriter named Marc Rubel. Rubel had established a steady
writing career with many scripts, some options and a movie (Almost
Summer) under his belt when he came up with an idea of a comedy loosely
based on his more colorful Venice Beach friends; one of which painted
album covers for Tower Records for a living. This story would culminate in a
local rock club called Xanadu.
Another friend, future Hollywood executive heavyweight Brain Grazer,
convinced Rubel to take this idea to his boss, future Hollywood heavyweight
#2 Joel Silver, who was working as a creative assistant to independent
movie producer and future Hollywood producer heavyweight #3, Lawrence
Gordon. A couple of months were spent with Rubel, Grazer and Silver
hammering out the story in detail, where, much to Rubel’s protesting, it
morphed from a comedy to a musical fantasy. Soon after the story was
presented to Gordon, it was sold to Warner Bros. as, what Gordon would
later called it, “a very low budget, no star, tiny small” project that would be
made to strictly capitalize on the growing roller disco craze.
The fate of this “small” project would soon change significantly when Silver
was hired away to Universal Studios as a VP and took Xanadu with him.
According to Gordon, Silver loved musicals and was quite passionate about
Xanadu to the point to claim that he would “stab myself in the back” just to
get the musical off the ground.
....and Xanadu had to get off the ground pretty quickly as two other studios had just announced roller disco productions of their own,
Skatetown USA and, considered to many the genre classic, Roller Boogie. Now, seriously pressed for time, Gordon and Silver
decided to get a leg up the competition by hiring away a director from another roller disco film, Robert Greenwald. Greenwald’s
resume up to this point consisted of many serious NYC theater productions and TV movie projects in both producing and/or directing
chores. Sharon: Portrait Of a Mistress, Katie: A Portrait of a Centerfold, and Flatbed Annie & Sweetie Pie: Lady Truckdrivers was among
his then-recent TV chores. Xanadu would be his major motion picture debut.
The project’s pace continued to accelerate as it was slated for a production date of September 1979 and release for 1980 along side
other Universal Studio releases like ‘The Gong Show Movie’, ‘1941’, ‘The Blues Brothers’, ‘The Nude Bomb’ (a.k.a. The Get Smart
Movie), ‘The Jerk’, ‘Somewhere In Time’ and ‘Flash Gordon’ (#3).
The scope of the production widened when Olivia Newton-John
agreed to sign on after reading a 20 page treatment of the script. As
part of the deal, her manager and then-boyfriend Lee Kramer
became the film’s executive producer. Suddenly, thanks to Olivia’s
star magnitude, the budget was increased and the original disco
element was eliminated for more of a traditional musical fantasy
The scope widened again when the producers soon began the
long process of courting the legendary Gene Kelly, who was an
energetic 68 at the time. Obviously, Mr. Kelly needs no introduction
here....ah, what the hell....
Gene Kelly’s film biography contains countless classics such as
An American In Paris, On The Town and his signature film Singing
In The Rain. Along with his good friend Fred Astaire, Kelly defined
cinematic choreography, and became a standard-bearer in the 40’s
and 50’s against which all other musical (and some non-musicals)
of the period were measured. When not dancing, Kelly showed
relentless creative energy by producing and directing features like
Gigot (the Jackie Gleason movie, not the beach flick) and Hello,
Dolly and starring in non-musical films like the controversial
classic Inherit The Wind with Spencer Tracy.
However, by the 70’s, he had voluntarily slowed his career down
when his wife died in 1973 and needed more time to raise his
family. When approached by Xanadu’s brain trust, Kelly showed
some interest in the project mainly due to the fact that the
production would be shot just a short distance from his Beverly
Hills home thus not take too much time away from his home and
family life. However, there was one catch: he wouldn’t dance. After a
colorful meeting with the film’s choreographer Kenny Ortega, he
immediately changed his mind.
By the time he signed on, Kelly’s character was officially named
Danny McGuire, which, oddly enough, was the same name as Kelly’
s role in his 1944 movie ‘Cover Girl’. Such influence (or
“borrowing”) can be also said about Xanadu’s basic plot as it has
been widely speculated that it’s quite similar to Rita Hayworth’s
1947 musical, ‘Down To Earth’, with Rita playing the central roll as
a muse, which wasn’t lost to Silver as he was originally planning a
disco version of this same film.. Even the idea of putting Kelly on
skates wasn’t that original either; he can be seen skating around a
backstage version of a New York City street in the 1955 musical
Always Fare Weather.
|ABOVE: The original screenwriter, Marc Rubel,
during his early surfing days
While names like a young Mel Gibson and David Naughton (of Dr. Pepper TV ad and Making It! TV fame) were tossed around for the
other, more younger, male lead of Sonny Malone, Gordon and Silver instead looked no further than their last movie. Michael Beck was
the lead in their 1978 film The Warriors, a street gang action flick written and directed by Walter Hill. This film caused a stir when near
riots broke out, including a murder, during some screenings in major U.S. cities.
Born Michael Beck Tucker in Memphis, Tennessee, he grew up near Horseshoe Lake, Arkansas and attended acting classes at
Millsap Collage. He took up an acting class as a bet but found his acting career taking him to England for five years, which helped him
eliminate his “Old Arkansanian” speech accent. From here, he ended up in the 1978 TV movie ‘Holocaust’ and 1979 ‘Mayflower: The
Pilgrims Adventure’ with Anthony Hopkins. When he got the Sonny Malone part, Michael offered to sing, but was turned down.
Now, all that was left was the music itself. Also in tow behind Olivia was her
long-time musical partner from the beginning of her solo career, John
Farrar. Farrar produced almost all of her recordings and largely pinned her
biggest hits, including Have You Ever Been Mellow and Don’t Stop
Believin’. He was also responsible for the two biggest hits from Grease,
Hopelessly Devoted To You (which was nominated for Oscar for best song)
and You’re The One That I Want. In 1979, Farrar’s output of hits for Olivia
continued with A Little More Love and Deeper Than The Night.
For the other half of the tunes, Jeff Lynne, the man behind the rock group
Electric Light Orchestra, was chosen. Originally, Lynne was hired to write
and perform the non-Olivia songs and compose the score. He jumped at
the chance to partake in this major project as he was obliged to turn down
similar opportunities in the past, due to the constant demands of his ELO
producing/songwriting/touring chores. One of these pasted opportunities
was writing the score of the movie Midnight Express, which eventually went
to Giorgio Moroder.
On paper, the names of Olivia Newton-John and Electric Light Orchestra would seem to be an unusual tandem to share a
soundtrack. ELO was one of the war-horses of the AOR scene of the early 70’s. In fact, ELO’s roots were decidedly avant-garde. ELO’
s creation was in a large part fueled by the Beatles’ dabbing in classicism-as exemplified by tunes such as I Am The Walrus and
Strawberry Fields Forever. The notion of lessening the distinction between rock and classical became a popular one; it was a
bandwagon that many groups attempted to jump on during the early 70’s. What set ELO apart from most other groups was that the
fusion with the elements of classical music was more than a mere adornment, it was indeed at the core of the group’s very structure.
However, by 1979, the seeming musical gap separating ELO’s neoclassicism and ONJ’s decidedly MOR approach to pop music
was becoming less apparent. ELO’s 1979 album release Discovery would be the most MOR/pop record the band would ever record.
In fact, two of the singles from the set, Shine Alittle Love and Last Train To London were heavily disco influenced; even ELO
keyboardist Richard Tandy, who was normally in charge of naming the band’s records, gave its title based on a break down of the
word: “Disco-Very”. As noted before, thanks to Grease, Olivia finally had the latitude she sought to record more ‘adult’ material. Thus
the pairing of these two poles was seen more plausible than what had originally thought.
Another departure for Lynne was this would be the first time he would be working and recording with an outside artist. With an
exception of a 1974 session with his idol, Del Shannon, he worked exclusively with bands he was in like The Move and, now, ELO. As
he told Billboard at the time, “…it was a bit strange to say ‘can you just try that bit again’…I didn’t know how far to go, but she was
such a nice person that everything I suggested, she tried it.”
A rock band was needed for the elaborate Dancin’ number, one that would represent the 80’s while a big band represented the 40’s,
thus creating the musical scope the producers were looking for. Through a recommendation from Ortega, The Tubes were picked.
The Tubes were formed in 1973 in Phoenix, Arizona by lead singer Fee Waybill (born John Waldo) and would eventually garner a
reputation in the San Francisco area as a theatrical rock act a few years later. In 1975 they signed with A&M Records. Their self-titled
debut album was produced by rock/blues legend Al Kooper and it contained one of their most popular songs, the satirical White
Punks On Dope. With the financial backing of a major label, The Tubes would tour extensively with an elaborate stage show with
flashy costumes changes, enforced audience participation and an occasional on-stage bondage acts (especially during the early
Despite the press that was generated by the antics of their sold-out performances (some of which led to being banned in several
venues during a tour of England, as well some arrests) and three more albums, strong album sales weren’t happening. In response,
the group announced that they were shifting their focus away from theatrics and more on the music. The result of this new direction
was the recording new material for what was to have been called Suffer For Sound (the release was later blocked by A&M). Shortly
after, The Tubes were picked by the Xanadu producers for the 80’s band role. For once, the outlandish stage reputation worked in
their favor….and it didn’t hurt that Ortega was also the group’s choreographer.
Now with a larger budget, bigger scope and major artists like Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly and Jeff Lynne suddenly on board,
Xanadu found itself in much bigger shoes than planned…with a increasingly shorter deadline as originally planned. Kenny Ortega,
who was hired before ONJ and Kelly signed on, found himself a bit over his head: “I went to bed thinking I was doing a roller skating
disco movie and woke up with the biggest star in music and suddenly the icon of motion picture musicals and truly going….’I don’t
know how to do this.’
The only person missing from this expanding project was the man who created it in the first place, Marc Rubel. Just after Universal
green lit the movie, Gordon informed Rubel of the good/bad news; it was finally being made, BUT he was being “rewritten”; movie
business talk for someone else was taking over the script.
A B$W poster from
Down To Earth.
a 70's era publicity
shot of Gene Kelly.
|ABOVE: Xanadu's musical trio: John Farrar, Olivia
Newton-John and Jeff Lynne on the movie set.