It's August of 1980. I have, just earlier that year, graduated from high school, and I now have the freedom to go to whatever movies I want without having to have my parents' permission. (Understand that I was brought up in a remote location, so even if I had a mind to do it, I couldn't just sneak out and go to one on my own. The nearest movie theater was 10 miles away. I had to wait until I had my driver's license and some semblance of autonomy.)
I was still an idealistic young 18-year-old then. I hadn't been jaded by years of observation of the reality of life. Life still had the potential of being idyllic. So one of the first movies I went to see on my own was Xanadu. The plot itself did not draw me, however. I had no clue what the movie was about. I went because I had a carefree spirit, and the music of Electric Light Orchestra, also known by their initials, ELO , which was used in the movie, was one of my favorite bands of the time.
Even now I can recall being thrilled by the "feel good" theme of the movie, and the hope for a life somewhat like the main character Sonny achieved. Reviews at the time didn't dissuade me from my initial reaction. (One particular reviewer summed it up, rather snarkily, "In a word---Xana-don't")
I didn't see it again until one Saturday afternoon 10 years later, when I was stuck in the apartment where I was living and nothing else that was on TV appealed to me. So I watched it. And I was astounded. This was a piece of crap! How could I have possibly liked this movie? Then came the scene within the movie where the characters Sonny and Danny envision two separate bandstands, one featuring a 40's swing band, the other an 80's new wave rock band. Both bands are playing separate tunes, but eventually blend together so that at the end, both are, while still playing their separate tunes, blend together so seamlessly that it seems to fit. And I thought, well, that must have been the reason I liked it.
It was another 10 years before I finally broke down and watched it again. My reaction was much the same as the one I had 10 years before. It is definitely one of the worst movies ever made, I thought. But, of course, when it got to the dual bands scene, I found I still liked that part. By this time I had run across the Golden Raspberry Awards, an award that is given out for the worst movies of the year (done just prior to the day they give out the Oscars). And I found out that John Wilson, the founder of the "Razzies", had watched a 99 cents double feature that had Xanadu paired with Can't Stop the Music, the faux-biographical movie on the origin of the disco group The Village People (still haven't seen that one), which was the genesis for his inspired award.
Xanadu had it's detractors, but it also had a cult following of people who thoroughly enjoyed it and still enjoy it. I know, because a few years after that third viewing, someone created and put on Broadway a stage musical version of Xanadu: The Musical. (Which seems to me to be redundant since the original movie was a musical in its own right.) Anyway, on the heels of the Broadway show, Universal Studios, the producers of the original, released a 30th anniversary edition, complete with a special feature interviewing some of the avid enthusiasts for the original movie. By this time I have grown to appreciate crappy movies, just for their crappiness, so I bought a copy.
Lo and behold, something has changed! Not only do I still enjoy the dual band scene, I actually liked the whole movie (or at least most of it. I still think the overall optimism is a bit cheesy, but it has taken less of a level of importance in my opinion.) So without further ado, I'll give you a rundown of the movie. If you haven't seen it, and feel brave, go ahead and check it out. Or maybe you are one of those who holds it near and dear to your heart, here even 36 years later. That's OK, to each his own.
The original movie is really essentially a remake, reworked with some nods to modern times. The movie was Down to Earth (1947), which starred Rita Hayworth and Larry Parks, a movie which itself was a sequel to Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). There are a lot of parallels across the board, and I won't detail them all, but you might find this webpage interesting (20 Facts about Xanadu) [Mel Gibson as Sonny??]
Sonny (Michael Beck) is a struggling artist as the opening credits run. He has quit his job to become freelance, but it's not working out. He rips up his final try and throws the shreds out the window, admitting defeat. As the strains of ELO's song "I'm Alive" play, the shreds float across town and fall to the Earth in front of a painting of the nine Muses of mythology. They come to life and dance.
Eight of the muses disappear into shining lights into the heavens but one remains. Kira (Olivia Newton-John) remains and turns this movie into the beginnings of a roller-disco movie, as she roller skates through the park and bumps into Sonny and kisses him then disappears. Sonny goes back to his old job, that of painting enlarged reproductions of album covers for a company owned by a half jovial-half tyrannical owner named Simpson (James Sloyan)
Sonny sees, on the album he is supposed to reproduce, the elusive girl who kissed him and begins a systematic search to find out who she is, but no one seems to know. Sonny ends up finding her at the abandoned auditorium from the same album cover. She talks to him as she skates but disappears again just as she has given him her names as "Kira".
Later, Sonny is on the beach where he strikes up a friendship with Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly), a jazz clarinetist who has long since retired to take up a job as the boss of a construction company, but still retains his love of the music of his past. He tells Sonny of his dream to start up a new club, and Sonny encourages him.
Danny makes Sonny his partner in the endeavor. Kira, who has become more available to Sonny over this time, encourages Sonny to bring Danny to the abandoned auditorium. While the two are discussing options, this is where the great scene I mentioned above occurs.
There is some background that reveals that Kira was also a Muse for Danny in an earlier time. Eventually Kira has to reveal the truth about herself to Danny, that she is a Muse, not a real girl, and that she must return to heaven. Sonny has fallen in love and does not want to lose her. His love takes on the form of a cartoon (drawn by Don Bluth, an acclaimed animation artist of the day, and this is one of the parts of the movie I find unbearably cheesy...)
Sonny eventually finds the wall where the Muses were drawn and his determination ends up catapulting him through the wall into the heavenly dimension, where he argues with Zeus (voiced by Wilfred Hyde-White) about the efficacy of true love.
After sending Sonny back to reality Kira pleads with Zeus to allow her to return with him. Zeus, with the determined encouraging of his wife, allows Kira to return to Earth "just for a moment. Or maybe forever... I keep getting them mixed up..." The finale involves every kind of extravagant show imaginable, with mimes and dancers and trapeze artists and tightrope walkers and God knows what else. Newton-John performs the title track "Xanadu", appearing in, alternating, a tight tiger-skin mini skirt, a fringe heavy western outfit and a Roman goddess headdress.
This movie is a lot more fun these days. I couldn't begin to explain why my attitude has changed, but it has. Now if only I could have my very own personal muse to fall in love with me and make it heaven here on Earth.