|HELL ON WHEELS
(from ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY # 943, July 13,
By Clark Collis
With Xanadu roller-skating onto
Broadway next week, EW looks back at
the making of the 1980’s gloriously
terrible Olivia Newton-John film – and
why its cult followers still believe in the
At New York’s Helen Hayes Theatre, during an early June preview of the Broadway’s latest song-laden screen-to-stage transfer, actor
James Carpinello is about to reveal the dream of his character, Sonny. “I would like to open a roller disco!” declares the actor, whose
late-70’s-era attire of T-shirt, cutoffs, and high socks clashes, deliriously and deliberately, with the play’s set, which evokes ancient
Greece. “How timeless!” replies the musical’s female lead, Kerry Butler, a vision in a flowing pink dress and roller skates. Her words
prompt a knowing howl of laughter from the audience. Though this crowd of twenty - and thirtysomethings – is young by Broadway
standards, plenty of here can remember a time when it seemed that roller disco would never o out of fashion. Tonight’s audience
appears to be thoroughly enjoying the $4 million-plus production, which features Annie Hall star Tony Roberts. When it’s time for the
final song, many are on their feet, clapping and singing.
Broadway productions based on box office hits are incredibly common these days. But what about shows based on Hollywood
debacles? Some critics counted this film among the worst ever committed to celluloid. When it was released, in 1980, the London
Evening News described it as “the most dreadful, tasteless movie of the decade.” It has become a byword for cinematic catastrophe.
It helped consign the bi screen musical to the dustbin for decades. Its name.
The musical fantasy – starring Olivia Newton-John as the leg-warmer-wearing lead (and Greek Muse) – almost single-handedly
spawned the Golden Raspberry Awards, an annual celebration of onscreen dreck. After paying 99 cents to see a double bill of
Xanadu and the Village People epic Can’t Stop The Music, “Razzies” founder John Wilson demanded a refund but was refused.
“Xanadu is a touchstone of movie wretchedness,” he rages 27 years later. “Seeing Gene Kelly, who did Singing In The Rain, doing
these clunky roller disco moves with people throwing bowling pins over his had – it is almost like he had gone to hell before he died.”
The plot of the movie Xanadu, though bizarre, is easy enough to describe: A frustrated painter named Sonny Malone (Michael Beck)
decided to open a roller disco after meting a comely, but mysterious skater named Kira (Newton-John). He’s helped by a jazz
musician-turned-construction magnate (Kelly) who, decades before, had a relationship with someone who eerily resembles Kira. In
fact, however, Newton-John’s character is an ancient Muse whose romantic feelings for Sonny transgress immortal law. Eventually
their love triumphs over this obstacle. The End.
What this summary leaves out are the film’s amateurish special-effects which include silhouetting Newton-John in a supposedly
ethereal glow (which actually makes her look like she’s just returned from a holiday in Chernobyl). Nor does it highlight a conclusion
so abrupt it makes the last episode of The Sopranos seem like a model of dramatic closure. And there’s the raft of laughably terrible
lines: “I’m a Muse!” Newton-John attempts to tell Back at one point. “I’m glad somebody’s having a good time,” he replies.
Though technically an 80’s film, Xanadu was very much a product of the late 70’s, a period when studio executives were scrambling
for ways to entertain the young moviegoers who were flocking to Star Wars, Grease and Saturday Night Fever. At times, the music-
driven mix of fantasy and romance seems to have been Frankenstein-ed together from footage cut from those three movies. But
Xanadu tapped into something new: the then hugely popular phenomenon of roller disco. A dazzling, pastel-heavy take on the late-70’
s skater chic permeates the entire movie, from the interior of its titular roller palace to Newton-John’s many costumes – which loom
large in the memory of Xanadu director Robert Greenwald: “One of the points I think it’s important to make us the hidden political
meaning in the film. I want people to look carefully for the politics in the leg warmers.”
Greenwald is joking, of course. The 61-year old has spent the last few years directing documentaries like ‘Outfoxed: Rupert Murdock’
s War on Journalism’, ‘Wal-Mart: The High Coast Of Low Prices’ and ‘Iraq For Sale: The War Profiteers’. And he’s not the only one of
Xanadu’s architects whose participation seems incongruous in hindsight. This testosterone-free cinematic confection was produced
by Larry Gordon, who went on to make Predator and Die Hard, and co-producer Joel Silver. Yes, that Joel Silver, the action-movie titan
who partnered with Gordon on Die Hard and Predator and spearheaded other ballistics-heavy extravaganzas like Hudson Hawk and
The Matrix. In 1979 Silver was a young executive hell-bent on producing a discofied remake of the 1947 Rita Hayworth vehicle Down
To Earth. It was a project Silver wanted to make so badly that he once claimed he was prepared to “stab myself in the back” to get it
off the ground. (Silver declined to be interviewed for this story.)
“You have to understand that Joel loves musicals,” explains Gordon. “I think when he came [to LA], he was more familiar with
musicals than action films.” Newton-John, then white-hot from the success of Grease, was an obvious choice to play Kira. She, in
turn, suggested an unknown Australian named Mel Gibson be cast opposite her. Instead, the part was given to Back, who’d starred
in Gordon and Silver’s previous collaboration, The Warriors.
The production, which bean principal photography in September 1979, was often turbulent. Newton-John broke her coccyx during a
roller-skating lesson. (“It was very painful,” she remembers. “But the show must go on, right?” And then there was the script, which
according to the actress was being rewritten on the hoof during filming.
“I wish it was being rewritten on the hoof,” sighs Greenwald. “It was being written on the hoof! In my enthusiasm for the idea of doing
a musical, I signed on before there was really any kind of script.” (To be fair, as Gordon points out, “a lot of movies are rewritten all the
way through production.”)
“You were not quite sure why you were doing what you were doing,” recalls Kenny Ortega, one of the film’s choreographers, who went
on to mastermind the dance sequence in One From The Heart and Dirty Dancing before directing Disney’s hugely successful High
School Musical TV movie. “You know, it’s kind of nice to know what’s talking you into a musical number and why you’re coming out of
Xanadu was released in August 1980, backed by a lavish marketing campaign that included Xanadu boutiques in department stores,
where copies of the film’s costumes could be purchased. But the disco beat that had hypnotized America in the wake of 1977’s
Saturday Night Fever was now causing a nationwide headache. On July 12, 1979, just a few weeks before the filming began on
Xanadu, a “Disco Demolition Derby” was held at Chicago’s Comiski Park, during which 10,000 dance-floor-friendly records were
blown up with explosives. Disco no longer ruled. In the lingo of the new era, disco “sucked.” And then the movie critic’s weighed in.
Variety called it “Truly Stupendously bad!” Roger Ebert, “Mushy and limp!” Esquire, “In a word: Xanad-don’t!”
“Yeah, the reviews was a disaster,” says Michael Cotton, a member of the rock band the Tubes, who performed in one of the film’s
musical numbers. “I wasn’t surprised how bad the reviews were, because mostly I agreed. It was just a train wreck – a big, giant,
colorful train wreck.”
Box office results weren’t totally dismal: Made for a budget between $9 and $13 million, Greenwald says, Xanadu grossed $22
million domestically. And its soundtrack – featuring lots of Newton-John and the Electric Light Orchestra – sold more than 2 million
copies and launched five hit singles. But the bad reviews and instant datedness combined to surround the project with an
atmosphere of calamitous failure. Beck would never again star in a major movie; lately he’s been narrating audiobooks, including Bill
Clinton’s autobiography. The film also cooled Newton-John’s post-Grease heat, although it was the 1983 release of Two Of A Kind –
her critically reviled reunion with John Travolta – that really ended her big-screen ambitions.
But that’s not the only reason the actress looks back on Xanadu with mixed emotions.
Michael Owen Perry was an extremely disturbed young man who, in the summer of 1983, was living in a trailer behind his parent’s
house in Port Arthur, La., having escaped from a mental institution. After watching Xanadu, Perry became convinced that Newton-
John really was a Greek goddess – one who was responsible for the corpses Perry hallucinated were rising up through his floor, and
one who communicated with him by changing color of her eyes. Perry even wrote a letter to the actress in which he explained, “I
heard voices and the voices said to me that you were a Muse and trapped under Lake Arthur.”
On July 17 of that year, Perry armed himself with guns, including a .357 Magnum and a Beretta pistol. He then embarked on a
shooting spree, killing two of his cousins, a 2-year-old nephew, and his parents – whom he shot through the eyes – before departing
for points unknown. In his parents’ house Perry left a Kill Bill-style death list of names including “Olivia”.
A nationwide manhunt ensued and, on July 31, Perry was apprehended at Washington D. C.’s Annex Hotel. In his room police found
nine television sets. All of them were turned to static and some had eyes drawn on their screens in felt pen. Perry was convicted of
the murder in 1985. He remains on death row to this day.
“I guess because I was playing this ethereal character, he got reality and show business confused,” says Newton-John, all
perkiness drained from her voice. “I left the country for a while. That was a very scary time.”
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree…”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 19th-century poem “Kubla Khan” is a classic of Western literature. But the film Xanadu – yes, also
inspired by the opulent summer capitol of the Mongolian Empire – has become a classic of sorts too. A classic of camp.
“I’ve had people for years pulling up into my driveway with Xanadu blasting out of their cars,” says Ortega. “At first I though it was
some kind of weird joke. Then I discovered they were sincere.”
This unabashedly flamboyant disco epic has a particularly strong following with women and the gay community. In 2002, a sell-out
“Xanadu Sing-A lot” took place at Hollywood’s 1,200-capacity John Anson Ford Amphitheater as part of OutFest, L. A.’s annual gay
and lesbian film festival. “It’s a mess of a movie,” Outfest programmer Shannon Kelly admitted at the time. “But it’s our mess.” The
previous year, a stage parody of the movie titles Xanadu Live! ran in Los Angeles. Its director, Annie Dorsen, described the film as
“the queerest movie that’s not actually about being gay.”
Robert Ahrens, as assistant at Paramount studios, had gone to see Xanadu Live! Soon after, he quit his job and embarked on what
would be a five-year quest to bring Xanadu to the stage. “I was a fan of the soundtrack as a teenager,” says Ahrens, now 37. “I was a
little disappointed by the film. But after I saw the version in L. A., I though, it does have a big cult following. There’s something here.”
Ahrens’ first hurdle was securing permission to do the show, which “took years because there’s five different right holders.” He also
had a hard time with funding and cast. “As soon as you say Xanadu,” he explains, “they either get it right away, or they look down on
you and then they call the police.”
One person who initially declined to be involved was Douglas Carter Beane, the screenwriter of To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything,
Julie Newmar and the man Ahrens though would be perfect to write his new stage version of Xanadu.
“I passed, quickly, many times,” Beane recalls. “Then he said, ‘You can do whatever you want with it.’”
Beane resolved to keep the film’s hits, including the chart-topping “Magic”, and the basic plot, but lose everything else. “It was a great
score, but the dialog is bad,” Beane says of the film. “And the plotting is abandoned. The fist time I saw it I though that they had
misplaced a reel. My version has quaint little addition like character development. There are actually just five lines from the movie that
are in the play.”
But if Ahrens thought he could escape from the curse of Xanadu, he was mistaken. Last February, Tony-winning actress Jane
Krakowski, who has been slated to play Kira, left the project, claiming it would clash with her schedule on 30 Rock. Then, on June 12,
just two weeks before the show was due to open, Sonny, a. k. a. James Carpinello, broke his ankle in three places while roller-
skating at a rehearsal. Cheyenne Jackson (All Shook Up) has placed him, and opening night is pushed to July 10. On the plus side?
Ahrens says that ticket sales for the previews have been “good and growing every week.”
“Gay men never miss a Joel Silver film,” says Beane when asked to explain the appeal of Xanadu. “He’s the Judy Garland of our
generation. Joel. People say, ‘Wait a minute, is that the guy that produced Hudson Hawk? We’re there!”
Beane, too, is joking. But at least one man sees Xanadu and its potential as no laughing matter. “I don’t usually take these calls,
“growls film producer Gordon. “But I like this movie. I can’t tell you how many people – girls especially – love Xanadu. They come in
my office, they see that one-sheet and they go, ‘Oh my God, I love that.’ Is it a good or bad movie? How do you judge that crap? I don’t
know. But I can’t wait to see the show. I hope they have a big smash. Maybe we’ll make a Xanadu 2.”
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