Thursday, February 24, 2011

Defending Xanadu

My favorite movie musicals are The Commitments, A Hard Day’s Night, Singin’ in the Rain, The Blues Brothers, Waiting for Guffman, The Wizard of Oz, Yellow Submarine, This is Spinal Tap, Dancer in the Dark, and the much maligned Xanadu (which I first saw only recently).

I now have a lot of affection for Xanadu. On my first viewing, I didn’t know what to make of it. But I kept thinking about it (this is generally a good sign). On a second viewing, I finally got it. I like this movie a lot and I want you to like it too. But it can be a confusing experience. So, as an antidote to confusion, here are 18 points about Xanadu:
  1. Xanadu has no bad guy and almost no dramatic tension. The closest thing to a bad guy is an egotistic boss who is at best a comic foil. The only dramatic tension in the story is resolved in three seconds at the very end. I was expecting a story on the first viewing and got bored when no story appeared. Later, I realized Xanadu’s style is purposefully lifted from musicals of the 30’s and 40’s. It’s not plot-driven or character-driven. Xanadu is theme-driven.
  2. It was a labor of love and “labor of love” is Xanadu’s theme. The labors of love are shown as building a dance hall, building a partnership, and building a romance. The romance between the artist and the Muse carries the movie. These labors of love are all shown as effortless (it is a fantasy, you know). The movie exists to celebrate falling in love and being alive. It is willfully nice. It is very nice. And it is the thoroughgoing niceness of the movie that won me over.
  3. Xanadu doesn’t have a shred of irony. I find this refreshing. Some people confuse lack-of-irony with lack-of-self-awareness. That really doesn’t hold true in this case.
  4. Critics accused the filmmakers of not knowing what they were doing. I think those critics were projecting their own confusion. I see the principals of Xanadu positively radiating confidence. What’s more, perfectionists like Gene Kelly and Jeff Lynne (and, I expect, Olivia Newton-John) don’t involve themselves in projects where people don’t know what they’re doing. Uncertainty and confusion are anathema to perfectionists. Quite the contrary, Xanadu accomplishes what it sets out to do. I see only three basic mistakes in the movie:
  5. The first mistake is that Xanadu should have been rated G. It looks like they added post-production audio of the boss saying “shit” (twice) to guarantee a PG rating. If so, this was a terrible miscalculation. Some sequences are obviously made for kids. If it had been rated G, it probably would not have met so much hostility when it was released. And I think kids would really enjoy it.
  6. The second mistake is the leading man is an everyman. Worse, he never sings and barely dances. Placing this candle between the arc lamp charismas of Gene Kelly and Olivia Newton-John yielded the predictable results. The actor’s performance was called wooden. If you look closely at his face, there’s real acting going on. But why look at his face when Olivia and Gene are right there?
  7. The only other basic mistake (which I don’t mind at all) is that Xanadu embraces styles that are now kitschy and unintentionally funny. Fashions from the 70’s and 80’s are now camp legend. And, for that, Xanadu is quite an artifact. This only adds to my enjoyment of the movie. (How about that van’s paint job, or the Ruthless People wardrobe, or the Kotter stripes in the apartment?) I like it, but I can understand the facepalms.
  8. I bet P.T. Anderson studied Xanadu very thoroughly for visual style and other elements when he was making Boogie Nights. And I suspect Xanadu’s male lead was a big influence on the Dirk Diggler character.
  9. The handmade (pre-CGI) special effects depicting colorful streaks of light and fun scene segues are one-of-a-kind for this movie.
  10. Xanadu is *not* a roller-disco movie. Roller skates are a form of transportation in this movie’s Los Angeles. The music is pop, new wave, and big band jazz. Electric Light Orchestra does most of the songs and they are great (even when they recycle their own material and fall into disco-y sound effects). Unfortunately, the title song is overproduced almost to the point of parody. Strip away the overblown audio and it’s a good song. (The only song I don’t like is the one Olivia sings in the studio sequence. This is just personal taste, but it’s a style of dreary ballad that was all over the place in the 70’s. Still, this particular number is worth watching, if only for the palm tree.)
  11. A palm tree steadily erects during the studio sequence. It’s not there to be clever or subtle. It is maybe the most unapologetically Freudian moment I’ve seen on film. Then again, why the urge to be ironic? Erections are, after all, a fact of human life and falling in love. Their symbolic representations are not unknown to the cinema. But I still have to laugh for the surprise. There are other surprises (don’t worry, I’m not spoiling anything):
  12. The Tubes perform, representing new music in one number.
  13. There is an animated sequence. On first viewing, suddenly seeing the Disney-style images made me groan. But my groan was misplaced. It’s animated by Don Bluth and is very well done.
  14. Olivia Newton-John, in heels and a USO uniform, tap dances with Gene Kelly in a big band sequence. Gene is a gentleman and holds back on his fireworks to let Olivia shine. And she is stellar! Who knew she could tap dance?
  15. Olivia’s costume changes in the finale are really over-the-top. I hear the various get-ups are quite a hit with gay men and middle school girls.
  16. Xanadu correctly anticipated: clothing styles, new wave, big band revival, working women, some aspects of hip-hop, and multiculturalism. Even the sister Muses are multi-ethnic. Combinations of styles run throughout the movie and represent an everyone-is-invited cosmopolitanism.
  17. Xanadu’s director, Robert Greenwald, now makes popular lefty documentaries like Out-Foxed and Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices.
  18. Xanadu is like Being John Malkovich except it is a musical fantasy about designing a dance hall. In both movies, an artist is inveigled (by forces beyond his comprehension) to host an enjoyable refuge for people. In Being John Malkovich, the artist’s personality is supplanted by a bunch of greedy, fearful senior citizens. In Xanadu, the artist gets to fall in love with Olivia Newton-John. Being John Malkovich is a more convoluted and interesting movie. But Xanadu has a much happier ending. The music is great. It is relentlessly nice. And I believe Xanadu is also fun for the whole family.

And here is my decidedly underproduced version of Xanadu (flubs and all):

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