|GENE KELLY’S XANADU
Back to his old song and dance
By Roger Ebert
LOS ANGELES – Good news on the economic front is always welcome, and here’s the latest bulletin from Hollywood: Inflation has
made all movies so expensive that it’s no longer too expensive to make original musicals. If you’re going to drop $15 or $20 million
any way you look at it, you might as well get a few song-and-dance numbers for your money.
And so here we are standing around in a vast parking lot filled with mud puddles, in front of a magnificent wreck of a building
known as the Pan Pacific Auditorium. Olivia Newton-John is having her hair combed and Gene Kelly is reading the stock prices in the
morning newspaper, and if the sun ever comes out they will film a scene from “Xanadu”. And if the movie comes out on schedule this
August, it will make 1980 a summer of big original musicals, after ‘The Blues Brothers’ and the Village People in “Can’t Stop the
Original musicals used to be a stock in trade at Gene Kelly’s alma mater, M-G-M. Some of the greatest musicals ever made – “An
American in Paris,” “Singin’ In The Rain” – were written directed for the screen without going through the technicality of opening on
But musicals were expensive. And there was a long period when original musicals were even more rare then examples of that
other classic dying Hollywood genre, the Western.
Everything had to be “pre-sold”, which meant that a musical had to open on Broadway and launch lots of hit songs and a best-
selling cast album before it could be recycled into a movie. Bt the time the pre-sold musical finally crawled into movie theaters its
original fans had all but forgotten it, which was just as well, given Hollywood’s suicidal compulsion to cast nonsinging actors in the
But now here we are on the brink of a summer full of original musical. John Travolta can be held responsible. His “Saturday night
Fever” and “Grease” became two of the most popular movies of all time, and their success was based very much on their music.
And the music was contemporary music, recorded and performed for the most part by artists best known for the records they
sold: The Bee Gees and Olivia Newton-John. “Grease” was based on a Broadway hit, of course, but the movie was extensively
rewritten and had lots of new songs. Hollywood figured it out. The knack to a best-selling musical was not to buy the rights to a
geriatric Broadway hit, but to sign up hot young recording talents and turn them loose.
And that, it is being explained to me, is part of the theory behind “Xanadu.” The person who is explaining is Robert Greenwald, the
director, who says that movie will be an Art Deco Musical Fantasy.
What’s it about? I ask, knowing full well that no description of what the movie was “about” could have even hinted at the qualities
of, say, “Singin’ in the Rain.” Greenwald seems to be equally distrustful about what it is about.
“It’s, ah…well, it’s about a girl who’s not really real. She’s played by Olivia Newton-John. She falls in love with a normal guy,
played by Michael Beck. They meet a guy played by Gene Kelly who used to be a musician in the old days; he played clarinet for
Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. But he let go of his dream…”
I love phrases like, “He let go of his dream…” I said.
“Yeah. It captures the feeling. He lets go of his dream, his life falls apart, and he goes into the family construction business. But
he’s always wanted to open up another place, a musical fantasy, a place like…this.”
We turn and regard the sagging façade of the Pan Pacific Auditorium. It sits in splendor in a giant area of cleared urban renewal
wasteland. Its paint has peeled and blistered, its walls has been defaced by graffiti, its doors hang askance, it is a huge wreck of an
abandoned Art Deco exhibition hall. So far it is the most interesting thing on the movie set, unless Gene Kelly will talk to me.
What was this place used for? I asked.
Conventions, trade shows, ice shows, wrestling.”
It’s been abandoned for awhile?
“The state eventually plans to tear down everything but the Art Deco façade, renovate that and keep it as an architectural
landmark, and turn all of this into a park.”
Can we look inside?
“Be my guest.”
The inside was a vast amphitheater of mud, illuminated by gloomy gray light from gaping holes in the roof.
“What we are doing is very exciting,” said Greenwald. “The outside of the building is being used in this scene to show the place
that Gene, Olivia and Michael find when they go looking for their dream. The inside will be the fantasy as they realize it. It’s already in
existence over at Hollywood General, the Omni Zoetrope studio. We’ve spent a million bucks on the most fantastic set you’ve ever
seen: Two level, a balcony, mirrors everywhere, fountains, lights in the floor….”
A gigantic disco? I said.
“No! Definitely not a disco. This is not a disco movie. The interior will be an Art Deco…ah, environment.”
You perceive a certain waning of the disco craze?
“This was never a disco movie. As a musical, it’s more of a throwback to the ‘40s, especially to Gene Kelly’s great 1944 musical
‘Cover Girl’. We start with a 1940’s vision, we add elements, the music is a combination of big band swing and rock and roll, and
everything merges into one combined Forties and Eighties fantasy.”
Why, I asked, returning to the trail, are original musicals coming back so strongly now, after so many years in disfavor?
“Several reasons. One is that the Broadway stage musical dose not necessarily reach the same contemporary audience as
popular recording artists do. Another is that since movie budgets in general are crazy these days, musicals aren’t so prohibitive.”
You’re counting on Olivia Newton-John to deliver at the box office?
“It’s a pretty good bet. The movie will contain 10 songs, both ballads and rock and roll. We’re using very hot contemporary
composers. Jeff Lynne of the Electric Light Orchestra will write and perform five songs and write the score, and John Farrar will write
five new songs for Olivia. John produces her albums and wrote ‘You’re The One That I Want’ and ‘Hopelessly Devoted To You’ for
The plot, I said, seems to sort of boil down to ‘Hey, gang! Let’s rent the Pan Pacific Auditorium and put on the show?
“It’s more complicated than that,” Greenwald said. “It’s more about love and romance than about putting on a show. About
realizing your dream.”
It occurs to me that Gene Kelly, standing right over there reading the financial page, probably knows more about love, romance
and realizing your dream than anybody else within earshot. Kelly is, at 68, one of Hollywood’s two favorite living links to the Golden
Age of Musicals. The other is Fred Astaire. They have been compared with one another ever since the 1940’s, when the
incomparably graceful Astaire, unquestionably the ranking dancer in the movies, was challenged by Kelly’s brash, physical dancing
style in “For Me and My Gal” and “Anchors Aweigh.” The two never were rivals, became friends, appeared together, and were
unforgettably contrasted in one brilliant sentence in David Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of Film: “Kelly is a dancer who thinks
and feels, whereas Astaire is a man who dances before he thinks.” Close study will reveal that to be a compliment to Astaire.
Gene Kelly dose not look anywhere near 68. He looks like a professional golfer in tournament trim. I had heard rumors that
“Xanadu” would be the last movie he would dance in, and I asked him if it were true.
“Whoever told you that can shove it,” he said. “I never said that and I would never say that.”
Ah-ha. You do plan to dance in more movies?
“I never said that either. I feel in good shape. I haven’t worked in a movie for eight years, since my wife died. I’ve wanted to spend
more time at home raising the kids. Now that they’re in high school, I can do a movie. I’ve been offered more jobs as a director than
as an actor, but I liked the sound of ‘Xanadu’ and I decided to do it. It’s got young people, young songs…that’s what M-G-M used to
specialize in, before they broke up all the great musical production teams. That old gang at Metro.”
“Next year, my son will go to collage. I’m not needed at home as much. What I did in the interim was mostly television. It’s
convenient, it pays well, and you can go home at night. Whenever I was asked to do a TV special overseas, like the big Lew Grade
special I did, I made sure it was in the summertime so I could take the kids along.”
Does “Xanadu” remind you of working on the originals at M-G-M?
“You mean working on a location instead of on a sound stage? I was on the first musical that went on location: ‘On the Town’.
These days you do what seems right. Some of the musicals like ‘New York, New York’ and ‘At Long Last Love’ were shot on stages.
This location… - he regarded the beached whale of the Pan Pacific – “…is obviously the sort of location you can’t build in a studio.”
But about original musicals…why did Hollywood get the idea that everything had to be pre-sold?
“It always had that idea. The original musical was always comparatively rare, although the ones that made it became so famous
that they seem to have been more common. One great reason was economics: You were gambling a great deal of money on untried
material and untested songs. You need somebody like Olivia Newton-John, who has a certain return on her record sales, who is an
important musical personage, who’s known on television…”
He began to walk out into the wasteland surrounding the Pan Pacific, skirting the mud puddles, his hands in his pockets.
“And of course even then you run a risk. What I miss esthetically is the permanent group we had at a place like M-G-M. People
who were on the payroll learned to work with one another. The composers, arrangers, choreographers, designers. We all knew each
other. Now when you make a musical you have to assemble a group from scratch. And it seems like there aren’t as many young
people as thee used to be, coming up in the crafts.”
“There hasn’t been the need for it: Starting with Elvis and his discovery of black music, the new musical trends have all been on
records, not in the movies. Groups like the Beatles, that kind of young music predominates. That’s why I like ‘Xanadu.’ It’s the same
kind of young music.”
You’re dancing a lot in the movie?
“Some. Enough. I keep in shape by playing tennis and jogging. I got into dancing through my interest in sports. If I had been big
enough, I might of gone on to play sports, although in the 30’s there were no professional sports to speak of except for baseball. I
was a gymnast in high school.”
You did a lot of gymnastics in your dancing, in movies like ‘The Pirate’ where you did difficult stunts.
“That was suited to my dancing style, which was bigger, more physical. Astaire’s method was perfect for the screen. It’s a tighter
style. Mine is more suited to dancing in the streets.”
Gene Kelly was responsible, of course, for perhaps the most famous single instance of dancing in the streets in history of the
movie, the title sequence from “Singin’ in the Rain,” with Kelly in love and stomping through rain puddles.
“Would you believe,” he said, “that I had a cold that day? And a fever? The most joyous number I ever did, and I felt lousy. The
whole number was childlike, it was a poem to sheer love of life, of being in love.”
The way he said the words, almost liltingly, he was almost making love to the memory. I asked him what his kids though of those
“On television, they almost always cut the final ballet sequence from ‘An American in Paris,’ because it’s 17 minutes long…too
long to go without a commercial, of course. So I take the to the movies, revivals, to see what their old man did. I think some of these
numbers speak pretty much the same language to everyone. It doesn’t matter how I felt when I did them.”
He looked back across the abandoned vacant land, to where an assistant director was signaling that it was time to do the next
“That’s what I get paid for doing,” he said. “For smiling at 4 o’clock when I’d rather go home. It’s a funny thing in a business like
this. Work is fun. But…fun is work. Now how do you figure that?”
© 1979/1980 Roger Ebert. Used without permission.