|LOVE OF XANADU
By Jessica Hundley, Mommy and I
are One, Issue 3
I first saw Xanadu when it was released nationally into the theatres in 1980. I was 10 years old. I know that by
the time the first scene was over I had that muscle tight nervous shake kids get when they're either really
pissed off or, in this case, overcome with joy. I remember distinctly being moved by the film in some powerful
wordless way, that I dreamt and thought about it for weeks after. 14 years later, when I saw Xanadu again, I
realized my childhood memory, the image I had kept inside my head, had become warped, over time, in a
strangely symbolic way.
Somehow I had translated the feel of the film into Xanadu as an other-worldly realm, a kind of alternate
reality, a crystal isle where Olivia benevolently ruled, fairy princess-like. It had gained all the trappings of a
folk-tale kingdom, all the misty-visioned beauty of a dream. The movie was set almost entirely in 1980 Venice
Beach, but my visceral take as a child was, appropriately enough, one of "magic".
What would become identifiable elements of 1970's film were exemplified in the 1969 release of Easy Rider -
followed by such films as Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver. Gritty violence and intense alienation brought a
new kind of hyper-realism to cinema. Although films such as Star Wars, 2001 and Grease varied greatly from
this theme, slow paced, highly emotional drama became a hallmark of films made within the decade.
In 1980 Xanadu turned it's back completely on what had become a standardized genre and welcomed both
the 80's and my adolescence with a frentic jubilance. It celebrated the possibilities of life with the same sort
of wild and blind eyed optimism America experienced directly following the walk on the moon. Coupled also
with the firm belief that a sound economy and technological advancement would bring about he betterment
of mankind was the remaining late 70's assertion that things would be okay if everybody just danced.
Following most conspicuously in the great tradition of "dream come true - tackle the world" movies, Xanadu
became perhaps one of the most satisfying of these films to date. The audience is never let down, your
beliefs mirroring those portrayed on the screen. Although the dream may be difficult, perhaps impossible to
attain, persistence, confidence and diligence emerge victorious. The early realization of an obvious outcome
does nothing to detract from the excitement. Subtle symbolic allusion is ignored throughout - most blatantly
with Gene Kelly's; "Dreams don't die, we, we kill them" speech which hits a raw nerve every time.
The message "keep the dream alive until it has become reality" is brought to the screen through super
saturation color, an ever changing mind bending array of costumes and the tireless choreography of the
films talented dance troupe.
There are a slew of incredibly entertaining editing techniques which move the film fast forward by combining
sound, animation and truly amazing primitive special effects.
But it is undeniable that the film's real power lies in the marriage of intense visual imagery with the
quasi-religious soundtrack by the untouchable Electric Light Orchestra. When Olivia chants: "Have to believe
we are magic, nothing can stand in our way" we are given what is essentially a mantra for the entire film.
The storyline, although keeping in vein with classic Greek dramatic structure, is unpredictable in most other
ways. An artist is unable to create. A muse is sent by Zeus and the artist is able, through the help of Muse,
friends and belief in his dream, to attain paradise. The twist is that this muse and artist fall in love.
The lead role of "Sonny" is played by since lost square-jaw heartthrob Michael Beck, who put just enough of
himself into the role to deliver each line with a startlingly authentic whine. This attribute attains particular
glory in his response to Olivia's confession to being a Muse. It is a statement which he greets with mute
disbelief until a series of undeniable and ingenious proof of her Olympian status has him shouting in
exasperation: "Now what the hell are we supposed to do, answer me that, MUSE!"
An artist at the evil corporate headquarters of Air-Flo Records, Sonny quits his job enlarging album covers
for record stores in order to attempt REAL ART. But he is hit with a brick wall and forced to return to Air-Flo
in humiliation, surrendering to sleazy exec "Simpson" to the disappointment of his coworkers: "We were really
pulling for you, like one of us breaking away, going out on his own, really doing it."
Wallowing in artistic angst, Sonny pulls on his white stripe red silk Adidas short shorts and takes his
frustrations to the Venice Beach boardwalk. It is here where he first encounters Olivia in a beautiful
myth-making moment. A hot roller-skate and moped pursuit ensues and Sonny meets the second powerful
force in this destiny; Gene Kelly as the sympathetic former big band leader. Kelly has a sort of
shrug-shoulder cynicism and his own failed experience with the muse, but through his fateful intimacy with
Sonny this bitterness is transformed slowly into hope.
It is Olivia Newton-John - at the height of her Hollywood star power - who puts the real magic into the film. As
the muse "Kira" Olivia brings to the screen what we always was best of: Sweetness, innocence and light. I
remember as a child thinking she was beautiful, not necessarily aesthetically but on the inside. She
represented to me purity that's inherently feminine and undeniably seductive. This "goodness", combined
with sincere bad acting, created an absolute charm. Recent rumors about her maintaining a long term
"ménage a trios" relationship with a man and another woman have only served to raise her, in my mind, to
Remember I am not speaking to you with tongue in cheek. I am painfully sincere - I am not attempting
another snide and shopworn homage to the ever closer kitsch of the past. I believe in Xanadu.
One of the most disheartening experiences I had renting the film was asking a video clerk where I might find
it - he answered me with an accent from one of the more pretentious European cities: "In zee trash barrel." I
nearly doubled over, that is exactly the sort of blatantly ignorant response concerning Xanadu that has
caused it's obscurity. I place bets that that ass hadn't even seen the movie. Xanadu is a film that must be
viewed with open heart and mind, by intellectual, existentialist and average dolt alike. Xanadu is not HIGH
ART and therefore cannot possibly be judged through schooled criticism. The only true barometer of it's
success is the warm feeling in your gut.
That is not to say that Xanadu does not work on several levels of pleasure at once - it is truly postmodern in
that it borrows from an infinite number of movie genres in an attempt to make a significant cultural
connection between decades. It's main focus is the blending of the 1940's and 1980's with the sort of zany
bubblegum enthusiasm of the 1950's. This theme is symbolically represented by an incredibly intricate scene
in which two stages merge - a 40's big band and new wavers The Tubes as "7 guys dressed in electric
Xanadu uses dance, song, color and particularly an early Don Bluth animation sequence to bring about a
sweet that makes your teeth hurt. The story of the movie is the story IN the movie - making the impossible
happen by creating your own version of paradise.
When we become witness to Sonny's brave attempts to rescue Kira from a visually stunning 4th dimension
Olympus - the effect is heart breaking. His juvenile stubbornness works with the infamous apathy of Zeus
and Hera to allow the couple another "moment" together - "Or is it years, I can't remember the difference."
The beautifully orchestrated over the tip-top climactic end/beginning is one of the most indescribably
satisfying moments in cinematic history. A seemingly infinite barrage of sound, costume, dance, lights,
skates, drag queens and acrobats. It is a frenzy of showmanship and in the very center spotlight is
Olivia/Kira who transforms herself from sexpot, to disco queen, to cowgirl, and finally enters triumphant -
dressed in the blinding raiment of the Muse - giving both the internal and external audience pure
And that is the real pleasure of the place called Xanadu: The power to induce the escape from mundanity
which the film once provided and the belief that for everyone here, there is a muse sitting high in Olympus
dishing out syrup-sweet doses of naiveté, magic and hope.
|"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran,
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea."
(from Kubla Khan or vision in a dream, a
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1797)