Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The young girls of Mount Helicon


Directed by Robert Greenwald
Written by Richard Christian Danus and Marc Reid Rubel

Spoiler alert: moderate

Despite three decades' worth of attempts to rehabilitate it as a campy cult classic (which is fine and appropriate, though I think even that's a little unnecessarily contemptuous), Xanadu remains an easy punchline, probably the best-known of the flop musicals that poisoned box offices throughout the late 70s and early 1980s.  Its reputation has, at least, been restored to the point that it's considered closer to the best of them than the worst, but it is a deeply despised movement.  And so one of Xanadu's most enduring legacies is how it, alongside another disco-rock musical, a Village People pseudo-biopic called Can't Stop the Music (so one sees how Xanadu might be the best), inspired the creation of the Golden Raspberry Awards.  With Xanadu's six nominations for their inaugural year establishing some of their most charming patterns of behavior, the Razzies have been almost as useful as the Oscars ever since.

It probably also doesn't help that Xanadu is, very specifically, a product of 1980 (on the freaking dot), and about as emblematic as any film could possibly be of the transition out of the 70s into the new decade.  The origins of the film were comparatively modest, starting off as nothing fancier than a cheap programmer designed to exploit the then-hot roller-disco phenomenon, produced by Lawrence Gordon with no goal besides profiting off a fad.  Yet, somehow, Gordon's roller-disco movie snowballed into something vastly more sprawling in its ambition, and frankly it doesn't seem like anybody involved has a particularly good explanation as to precisely why, except that by casting Olivia Newton-John at the height of her fame, Xanadu was transformed from a tiny nothing of a movie into a follow-up to Grease, 1978's box office champion, which in turn kicked it up to the kind of budgetary level where its creators couldn't help but start pursuing much more interesting ideas than All Skate: The Motion Picture.  Shade by shade, it became a nostalgia vehicle every bit as potent as Grease, but pitched in a different, more wistful register—ultimately, maybe the most faithful attempt ever made at recapturing the forms and feelings of the film musical's Golden Age for a new era.

Now, I have never seen it categorized as such, and I doubt you'll ever see it so categorized again, but if one of the defining features of the New Hollywood was a newfound respect for the rich tapestry of film history—and showing that respect by their willingness to steal from it and letting you know they were stealing from it—then maybe it's not entirely unreasonable to think of Xanadu as one more New Hollywood project at the end of the 1970s that got a little out of control (and obviously it's worth mentioning that there really was significant overlap between the canonical New Hollywood and the unviable late 70s/early 80s musical: Martin Scorsese was an enthusiastic participant, and Walter Hill, though arriving late to the party, was too).

But I suppose I'll let that thought trail off, since what I find fascinating is less how Xanadu fits into its contemporary milieu, and more just how directly and blatantly Xanadu ties itself to the film musicals of the 40s and 50s (with a touch of the 30s thrown in, though really only in a couple of overhead shots that are hard not to read as "clunky Busby Berkeley homage," plus maybe a few edits and setpiece ideas that more successfully reflect his spirit).  Above everything, of course, there was the participation of Gene Kelly, pulled in by choreographer Kenny Ortega, who, according to Ortega's behind-the-camera stories, agreed to be in the picture only on the condition that he would not dance a single step, while asking Ortega what he would have him do, hypothetically speaking, if he did dance.  Kelly's attempts to play hard to get notwithstanding, he clearly fell in love with the project and what it represented—you can tell that just by watching the movie, though it helps to know that he ultimately returned for reshoots without a contract when Gordon, Ortega, and director Robert Greenwald belatedly realized they'd made a movie with two musical stars and forgot to give them a number together.  Equally obviously, this scene—the most straightforwardly-lovely thing in the movie, and the key to it, despite it being patched in after-the-fact—is all Kelly.  It's his choreography, ratcheted down a few notches to match Newton-John's capabilities as well as his own at age 67; but, since it's a bittersweet number about lost dreams, this absolutely works in its favor anyway.

The other big way Xanadu reminds you of Golden Age musicals is that it's a remake of one, just loose enough that they could get away with not crediting it, and whatever else you want to say about Xanadu, it's one of those exceedingly rare remakes that actually takes on an old movie that squandered its potential, instead of just retreading one that was already fine.  So, while it's often brought up as a piece of trivia, I don't know if I've seen a single reference that indicates that folks writing about Xanadu have actually watched the musical it remakes—Columbia's 1947 Rita Hayworth vehicle Down To Earth—because the signal quality of Down To fucking Earth is that it's abysmally awful in ways that would instantly recalibrate your appreciation for how good or bad Xanadu is, and that's despite it having more-or-less the same plot and to some degree even the same goals.  The short version is that Down To Earth—a bizarre Goddamn movie, in that it's a sideways sequel to 1942's heavenly bureaucracy film Here Comes Mr. Jordan in not a single way that its story about Greek mythology actually requires—is all about the updating of old-fashioned art to embrace new popular forms.  It explores this in a tale that unintentionally makes these new popular forms seem like the most asinine notions ever conjured by humankind, with terrible joke songs that include lyrics about how fun it is to beat your wife, and the only scene that works in the whole picture is the airless high-art modern dance that its heroine, Terpsichore the Muse, turns her stage production into, thereby, in her film's opinion, almost destroying it.  Which is what they call irony.

Xanadu, then, is also the story of Terpsichore (identified as such only by the line "my real name is T—" because nobody wanted to be sued), though these days she goes by the name "Kira."  We meet her and her eight sisters in a neat, kitschy prologue that finds the muses dancing their way out of a painted mural, and Xanadu is already at the business of explaining all of the things that Xanadu will be about: cheesy backlit animation effects, rollerskating, sub-optimal compositions from Greenwald and cinematographer Victor Kemper, and a soundtrack mostly by the Electric Light Orchestra—though I suppose that it's also about the romance between our muse and the artist she inspires, Sonny Malone (Michael Beck).  Presently languishing in a commercial studio, Sonny's spent his 20s bitterly throwing his talent away on painting larger versions of album covers for display in record stores, which I guess must've been a real job or it wouldn't be in the movie.  Anyway, Kira approaches Sonny as a rollerskating stranger shaped like Olivia Newton-John—so he's in no mood to object that she plants a kiss right on his lips and skates off without a word. Naturally, this arouses Sonny's curiosity, tilting a little bit toward obsession when, by fateful coincidence, the next album cover he's tasked to create has her on it, too.  In the process of trying to find her on the Venice Beach seaside, Sonny makes another acquaintance, one Danny McGuire (Kelly, reusing his character's name from 1944's Cover Girl, generally recognized as Kelly's arrival as a star actor/dancer/choreographer, and I suppose Xanadu confirms that this was Kelly's estimation of it, too).  Danny is also an artist—a clarinet player for Glenn Miller, no less—who also surrendered his art in order to make a living, but has regretted it ever since.  With the pieces now in place, Kira finally makes herself available to Sonny, nudging him toward what she came to Earth to do—connecting Danny and Sonny's artistic souls in a shared dream of, um, turning the art deco ruins of the Pan-Pacific Auditorium into a happening new nightclub called Xanadu.

Okay, the bad: obviously, that shared dream doesn't seem to link up at all, though it comes off more smoothly in the film than it does in synopsis, and there is something compellingly sad about the has-been whose own artistic impulses are so worn out they're only useful as a venue for other, younger artists.  Of course, because Danny is Gene Kelly—in a remarkably sensitive performance that sees him making it plain that he's feeling his years—Danny's dreams make somewhat more sense.  I mean, besides the fact that "building a place where people can dance" is something that Kelly did in real life (just a few blocks from where I sit, in fact), creating cinematic spaces to promote the art of dance for professionals and ordinary folks alike was one of the central themes of Kelly's whole career.  On the other hand, there's Sonny.  It's easy to be too hard on Beck—and many have been, though a pair of closely-spaced watches has convinced me that he's slightly better than I thought, or at least not film-destabilizingly bad (albeit mostly in his scenes with Kelly, whose talent for getting amiability out his male co-stars evidently never waned).  Still, he's simply not anywhere in the same solar system as charismatic enough to bench this film's extremely hard-lift of a romantic plot, which demands that Kira, a divine being sent here to do a job and forbidden from feelings of her own, must nevertheless fall in love for the first time with a man who, as far as we know, might be the most mediocre artist she ever inspired.  Beck tries, bless him, yet the bravado and coolness he's reaching for tend to come off more as tetchiness and arrogance, and it might be less effective than a genuinely blank performance would have been.  So while Newton-John is plenty generous with her co-star, she also might have more chemistry with Kelly (which isn't that narratively unfair, actually, since it's beyond-implied that Danny once fell in love with this muse, too), and Kira and Sonny's romance almost never comes off more credibly as an irresistible force than when the movie decides, what the hell, let's turn them into actual cartoons now, maybe then they'll be able to act.

Which brings us to the good.  (And, besides, what else is a musical romance, but a cheat to smoosh two characters together because the plot says so?  Very rarely anything else, and Xanadu's not even always pretending.  The crucial moment, whereupon Sonny speeds himself on rollerskates into the muse's mural to get Kira back or die trying, finally does give their relationship something like emotional substance.)  Either way, the credibility of the central attraction becomes very much a secondary concern, because the primary appeal of Xanadu is just what a wacky, tacky, whimsical, silly mess it can be, just contained enough to remain coherent, but wild and expressive enough to offer up a constant joy of discovery, from its extremely-cool, thematically-laden re-do of the Universal Studio logo till the roll of the closing credits.

The animated sequence may not even be the most forceful example, but it's the easiest place to start: half the reason we're looking at Xanadu is because it represents the first onscreen work of Don Bluth Productions ("Banjo the Woodpile Cat" doesn't count, since he started it as a side project while still at Disney).  Made basically because Greenwald arrived at Bluth Productions with money, which they very much needed to do The Secret of NIMH—Bluth has forthrightly admitted he had zero inherent interest in Xanadu itself—it's a gorgeous little sequence anyhow.  It confirms most of my priors about Bluth, that the differentiation between he and Disney comes down to very small valences which animation nerds inflate all out of proportion to their objective importance (the most notable one here being that the animated Sonny and Kira share an admittedly un-Disney-like open-mouthed kiss), but he was certainly a talented animator, as were his colleagues.  Their sequence here's a whirling magical fantasy setpiece (not much of a point to an animated segment otherwise, right?) set to ELO's "Don't Walk Away," that Bluth would probably prefer to be described as inspired by Pinocchio or Fantasia, what with their unaccountably-sexy fish.  But more than either of those, it asks the question I don't think anybody else would have had the presence of mind to ask, namely "What if we had The Sword In the Stone's animal transformation sequences, but Wart and Merlin wanted to bang?"  It thus arrives at a more coherent statement of purpose in three minutes than Sword In the Stone did in like eighty, so, for now, 1-0, Bluth.

The thing is, Xanadu is only very slightly less whimsical when it's live-action, and one of its pleasures is how frequently it manages to be a musical.  It has more numbers, and is better at structuring them around (and, yes, in substitution for) a screenplay, than a great many musicals I could name—and I suppose that this is the only halfway-plausible reason why it cost so much that it could become a serious financial bomb (and if there's one thing I agree with its detractors about, it's that it is insane that Xanadu cost $20 million, a sum that despite it all is absolutely not visible on the screen, so I assume must have included a massive cocaine allocation).

So, sure, most of these numbers are just stupid goofy fun (Danny's makeover for opening night, "All Over the World," is a chaos of images that gets by purely through being colorfully kinetic; the finale, "Xanadu," is likewise mostly just a huge pile of neat ideas flung at the screen, and occasionally at questionable angles, including one that reveals the soundstage above the set).  But a few of them are genuinely inspired: I said that "You Made Me Love You," Kelly's dance with Newton-John (playing the memory of Terpsichore, as he knew her back in 1945), is the key to the movie, but the movie's real thesis statement belongs to "Dancin'," a gonzo 40s/80s mash-up between rock group The Tubes, doing an aggressive proto-hair metal sex anthem, and Newton-John, doing her own best (pretty darned good) overdubbed impression of an Andrews Sisters-type girl group.  Presented as competing visions for Xanadu from its creators, ultimately the songs (and even the stages themselves!) merge into one single, thronging number, Xanadu asserting that they're barely-different expressions of the exact same feelings, and it's kind of awesome how well the two songs slot together in its climax.

And that's what Xanadu is really about: bridging the past and present and looking to the new while honoring the old.  It's a wonderful sentiment, and for all the shit Xanadu's gotten over the years, it truly is as beautiful and reverent a send-off for a screen legend as just about anything ever attempted.  Part of that reverence is that Xanadu sees Kelly as more than just Kelly—it recognizes him as the living embodiment of an era, even a whole mode of entertainment.  And, as Xanadu would have it, it's a mode that only ever needed a little bit of sprucing up from time to time in order to stay entertaining forever.  To my mind, that ought to be easy for any fan of the Golden Age musical to respond to, and while not everybody is such a fan, and there's plenty to be repelled by in Xanadu even if you are, there's nothing fundamentally wrong with it that isn't also wrong, usually much more destructively, with the overwhelming majority of its predecessors.  Honestly, I feel like if you can spare kind words for the canonized classics, you don't have the right not to spare one for Xanadu.

Score: 8/10

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