Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Now We Are Here... In Xanadu

Even as I write this, an adaptation of the 1980 movie Xanadu is playing on Broadway. In part this interests me because of the novelty of what is widely considered a notoriously bad movie being made into a Broadway musical. It also interests me for another reason. You see, I have a horrible confession to make. Xanadu was the first musical, ostensibly made for adults, which I ever saw in a movie theatre. What's worse is that I actually enjoyed it.

Now in my defence I must say that I was still a teenager and my tastes in movies hadn't quite developed yet. Furthermore, I was (and still am) a huge fan of the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), who provided half the movie's soundtrack. At the time I would have gone to see a movie directed by Ed Wood if it featured the music of ELO. I must also say that back then I had a huge thing for Olivia Newton-John (I still do). I would have gone to any movie which starred her (except for Grease--even back then I must have had some tastes...). I was also even then a fan of Gene Kelly. I'd first been exposed to the man's work as a very young child when he directed and acted in the critically acclaimed TV special Jack and the Beanstalk. Between my lack of tastes at the time and various other factors, I was then predisposed to like what I would later realise was not a very good movie.

If anyone is ultimately to blame for Xanadu it is perhaps Joel Silver. The man has gone onto bigger and better things. He would produce both Die Hard and The Matrix, among many other films. In the late Seventies, however, it was Silver's goal to produce an old time musical. To be more specific, he wanted to produce an updated version of Down to Earth, the 1947 movie featuring Rita Hayworth as the muse Terpsichore. Originally Xanadu was meant to be a straight forward roller disco movie, but two quickie B movies on the subject, Skatetown U.S.A. and Roller Boogie beat Xanadu to the punch. This is one reason (another being Silver's desire to produce an old time musical) that the movie combined elements of both the Forties and the Eighties, as well as emphasised fantasy. And while I don't know if this played a role in the development of the movie or not, by 1979 the popularity of disco was already in decline. I rather suspect that this is the reason that the music in the movie is not disco. The songs were written by Jeff Lynne of the Electric Light Orchestra and pop songwriter John Farrar (who wrote songs for Olivia Newton John), and performed by ELO and Olivia Newton-John. Ultimately, it seems circumstances would shape Xanadu into a rather strange film: a pop/rock musical with elements of old time musicals in a roller disco setting.

From the beginning Xanadu was plagued by problems, not the least of which was casting the film. Fresh from her success with Grease, Xanadu was seen as the vehicle from which to launch Olivia Newton-John's career as a solo star. Gene Kelly was already a legend and was cast in the role of Danny McGuire (the same name as his character in Cover Girl, in which he played opposite Rita Hayworth). Kelly realised the project held little promise, but took it in order to be close to his family at home. While Newton-John and Kelly's parts were easily cast, the casting of the film's leading man proved a bit more complicated. Initially Andy Gibb was cast in the lead, but he soon backed out of the project. Olivia Newton-John has said that she wanted yet-to--be famous Australian actor Mel Gibson for the lead, but the producers vetoed him as not being well known enough. Ultimately, Michael Beck, who played the lead in the classic gang movie The Warriors (Joel Silver's first job as a producer), was cast in the lead.

Xanadu had far worse problems than casting its leading man. Even as the movie started shooting, its script was not finished. It was written as the movie was being filmed. The special effects presented another hurdle for the film. Much of the difficulty with the effects in Xanadu was the fact that the movie was shot in naturalistic settings--street scenes, the interiors of buildings, and so on. As a result the film had to rely on some fairly complex matting effects. Worse yet, Joel Silver, director Robert Greenwald, and cinematographer Victor J. Kemper wanted more effects and more impressive effects as well. This became a problem when Universal moved the movie's release date from the Christmas season of 1980 to August 8, 1980.

Given the problems Xanadu experienced in its production, it is perhaps little wonder that it received universally bad reviews. Variety called it "...a stupendously bad film whose only salvage is the music." Roger Ebert was much more charitable. Of the film he said, "Xanadu is a mushy and limp musical fantasy, so insubstantial it keeps evaporating before our eyes," but admitted that Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly, the soundtrack, and the fact that it wasn't as bad as Can't Stop the Music (the notoriously horrible Village People musical released the same year) were some of the very few reasons to see it. Perhaps the most notorious review was also the shortest--"Xana don't (I wish I knew who said that one)." Indeed, it was a 99 cent double feature of Xanadu and Can't Stop the Music which inspired John Wilson to create the first ever Razzie awards. Xanadu took only one award away from that first Razzies, one for Robert Greenwald as Worst Director (Can't Stop the Music won the "Worst Picture" category). The reputation of Xanadu as a bad film has followed it to this day. At Rotten Tomatoes it has only a rating of 25% among critics--with users it fares even worse at only a 22% rating. The reputation of Xanadu had dire consequences for its stars. After Xanadu Olivia Newton-John would only receive top billing on a movie if she was co-starred with someone else. Things were worse for leading man Michael Beck. He once stated "The Warriors opened a lot of doors in film for me, which Xanadu then closed." He never again played the leading man in a movie. The fact that Xanadu was considered a bad movie was probably made all the worse by the fact that it was widely considered a box office dud (in fact, it still is).

Here I must challenge the idea that Xanadu is both an atrociously bad film and the idea that it was a total bomb at the box office. Don't get me wrong, in my humble opinion Xanadu is a bad movie, but like Roger Ebert I can see some good things in the film. Xanadu does have a truly great soundtrack. Indeed, the soundtrack album went to #4 on the United States' Billboard album charts and to #2 on the UK's album charts. The Electric Light Orchestra did some of their best work for the movie--"The Fall" is my favourite ELO song of all time. And while John Farrar's songs aren't what I would usually listen to, as sung by Olivia Newton-John they are enjoyable in the context of the movie. This sets Xanadu far above some musicals from the past forty years, such as Dr. Dolittle (1967), the 1969 musical remake of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and Can't Stop the Music. Not only were these films incredible bores, but they feature some truly horrible songs ("Talk to the Animals" from Dr. Dolittle being an exception).

And I must also agree with Roger Ebert on some other points as well. With the exception of Michael Beck, its lead characters are enjoyable to watch. Gene Kelly is as charming as ever and gives the movie some of its best moments. And not only is Olivia Newton-John very pleasant to look at, she also has an energy that is absolutely contagious. The film also features an animated sequence from Don Bluth set to ELO's "Don't Walk Away." While Don Bluth has committed myriad indiscretions with regards to animated features (I've never quite forgiven him for All Dogs Go to Heaven), this splendid sequence is not one of them. Over all, Xanadu is not as horrendous as some would have it. Indeed, it is a far sight better movie than such turkeys as Cocktail, The Specialist, The Saint, Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, and Catwoman.

I also have to question that Xanadu was the bomb at the box office we've been led to believe it was. Xanadu cost an estimated $20,000,000 to make. In its initial release it grossed $22,762,571. To put thing into perspective, when adjusted for inflation for 2007, that would be around $56,000,000. Although this means that Xanadu did do poorly at the box office, it must also be kept in mind that it did make a profit. And it was not nearly as big a dud as many other movies, examples of which are The Wiz, Heaven's Gate, Ishtar, The Alamo (2004), The Island, and The Black Dahlia. While Xanadu was a box office flop, it was a box office flop that made a profit and didn't do nearly as badly as some movies have. It is hardly one of the biggest box office bombs of all time.

While I submit that Xanadu isn't nearly as bad as some have claimed and that wasn't as big a bomb at the box office as some would have it, Xanadu is a bad movie nonetheless. The script would seem to be the primary culprit with regards to the movie's poor quality. Xanadu absolutely drags in places, making it a very difficult movie to watch. Worse yet, the movie features some truly atrocious dialogue. While there is magic while Olivia or ELO are singing, there are times this can turn to abject horror for viewers the moment the characters open their mouths to speak. And while Michael Beck displayed some talent in The Warriors, it is totally absent in Xanadu. He might as well have been a cardboard cutout. Xanadu also had dire lapses in good taste, as in the "dress up sequence" over which ELO's "All Over the World" played. Of course, I guess where fashions are concerned, Xanadu has very little in the way of taste in many instances....

While Xanadu is a bad movie whose reputation has seemed to worsen over the years, strangely enough it has also become a cult film. Xanadu has made the midnight movie circuit. And while I enjoyed the movie as a horny, teenage male with a thing for Olivia Newton-John in 1980, for whatever reason it has a strong following among gay audiences. It is then little wonder that Xanadu would make its way to Broadway. It was Robert Ahrens, late of Paramount Pictures, who came up with the idea of Xanadu on Broadway after seeing an unauthorised stage version of the notorious film. Ahrens bought the stage rights to both the movie and the songs of ELO. He then set about persuading Tony Award winning playwright Douglas Carter Beane to write the musical's book. Just as the movie had its difficulties in getting to the screen, so too has Xanadu on Broadway had its problems. Original leading lady Jane Krakowski, a Tony award winner, opted out of the production because of her commitment to the TV series 30 Rock. Original leading man James Carpinello sprained his ankle in a rollerskating accident. They were replaced by Kerry Butler and Cheyenne Jackson. At last Xanadu on Broadway made its debut in the Helen Hayes Theatre. And surprisingly it has received largely good reviews, from such sources as The New York Times, Variety, The Gothamist, The Globe and Mail, and The Philadelphia Daily News.

That Xanadu could provide the source material for what appears to be a good Broadway musical seems to me to be proof one of one of two things, or perhaps even both. One is that Douglas Carter Beane has more talent than any of us originally suspected. The other is that perhaps Xanadu wasn't nearly as bad a film as many had previously thought. Let's face it, the concept of a muse coming to Earth not only provides the basis for Xanadu on Broadway, but for Down to Earth, the passably enjoyable movie upon which Xanadu was based. It seems possible to me that if Xanadu had a better script (if only a screenwriter of some talent had finished it before shooting) and a better leading man, it might not have the reputation it does today. As it is, rather than one of the worst movies of all time, I think Xanadu is better regarded as a bad movie with some good points. At any rate, it is certainly better than Can't Stop the Music, Catwoman, and their ilk.

1 comment:

Squirrel said...

It is very funny--but I recall the film Xanadu and watching it just to see Gene Kelly. It was actually so weird bad, that it was good, if that makes any sense.

Last summer we went on a long drive and had an ELO Cd--we played it, enjoyed it in a "been there done that" sort of way...and gave it away to some random unsuspecting young person.