by Roger Ebert, Xanadu (two stars), PG, 93 min. 1980
Xanadu is a mushy and limp musical fantasy, so insubstantial it evaporates before our eyes. It's one of those
rare movies in which every scene seems to be the final scene; it's all ends and no beginnings, right up to it's
actual end, which is a cheat. There are, however, a few--a very few--reasons to see Xanadu, which I list
herewith: (1) Olivia Newton-John is a great-looking women, brimming with high spirits, (2) Gene Kelly has a
few good moments, (3) the soundtrack includes 'Magic', and (4) it's not as bad as 'Can't Stop The Music'.
It is pretty bad, though. And yet it begins with an inspiration that I found appealing. It gives us a young man
(Michael Beck) who falls in love with the dazzling fantasy figure (Newton-John) who keeps popping up in his
life. Beck works as a commercial artists, designing record covers, and when he tries to include Olivia in one of
his painting he gets into trouble at work.
That's okay, because he's met this nice older guy (Gene Kelly) who's very rich and wants to open a nightclub
like the one he had back in New York in the 1940's. Kelly used to be a sideman in the Glenn Miller Orchestra,
and in a quite charming fantasy scene, he sings duet with his old flame, the girl singer in the old Miller
band--who, lo and behold, is Olivia Newton-John.
This means both men are in love with the same dream girl, who, we discover, is not of this earth. They team
up to convert a run-down old wrestling amphitheater into Xanadu, a nightclub that will combine the music of
the 1940's and 1980's. And that is the whole weight of the movie's ideas, except for a scene where Michael
Beck visits Olivia in heaven, which looks like a computer-generated disco light show.
Musicals have been made with thinner plot lines than this one, but rearly with less style. The movie is muddy,
it's underlit, characters are constantly disappearing into shadows, there's no zest to the movie's look. Even
worse, I'm afraid, is the choreography by Kenny Ortega and Jerry Trent, especially as it's viewed by Victor
Kemper's camera. The dance numbers in this movie do not seem to have been conceived for film.
For example: When Beck and Kelly visit the empty amphitheater, Kelly envisions a forties band in one corner
and an eighties rock group in another. The movie gives us one of each: Andrew Sisters clones in close
harmony, and Electric Light Orchestra in full explosion. Then the two bandstands are moved together so that
they blend and everyone is on one bandstand, singing one song. It's a great idea, but the way this movie
handles it, it's an incomprehensive traffic jam with dozens of superfluous performers milling about.
The Ortega-Trent choreography of some of the other numbers is just as bad. They keep giving us five lines
of dancers and then shooting at eye level, so that instead of seeing patterns we see confusing cattle calls.
The dancers in the background muddy the movements in the foreground. It's a free-for-all.
The movie approaches desperation at times in its attempt to be all things to all audience. Not only do we get
the 1940's swing era, but a contemporary sequence starts with disco, goes to hard rock, provides an
especially ludicrous country and western sequence, and moves on into a prefabricated New Wave. There are
times when Xanadu doesn't even feel like a movie fantasy, but like a shopping list of marketable pop images.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge dreamed the poem Xanadu but woke up before it was over, a possibly over looked
by the makers of this film.