Film anniversaries tend to prey on a kind of incredulous public nostalgia for a past that doesn’t seem nearly as distant as it is. “How can Gladiator/Clueless/Pretty Woman be 20/25/30 years old?!” we’re supposed to cry, before grumbling to eye-rolling youngsters that we remember seeing them like yesterday. Very occasionally, the reverse applies, as we sheepishly marvel that Robert Downey Jr’s Oscar-nominated blackface stunt performance in Tropic Thunder wasn’t of a more bygone era than 2008.
In the case of Xanadu, however, the numbers game doesn’t really apply either way. This week marks exactly four decades since Universal’s epically derided musical blitzed its way on to US cinema screens in a queasy haze of lilac neon light, yet 40 seems an entirely banal middle age for a film that elastically stretched the concept of time from the very beginning. A grand studio folly that attempted to mesh the comforting sensibility of 1940s Hollywood musicals to the fast-expiring disco mania of the 1970s, leaning into the latter’s then current roller-disco offshoot and simultaneously flailing about for glam rock and new wave reference points, Xanadu arrived both immediately dated and desperately of-the-moment – like an overstuffed time capsule of a half-dozen different eras, only assembled by Martians who had been observing popular culture from afar. Xanadu is 40 years old this week, but it may as well be 4,000, or a missive from an as-yet-unborn future. Nothing about it makes any sense, its birthday least of all.
If you disassemble its many lunatic moving parts, however, you can sort of see how Xanadu was conceived in the first place, as the bloated outcome of the kind of zealous, coked-up “it’s X-meets-Y-meets-Z” studio pitches that Robert Altman skewered in The Player. The 1970s had been an awkward age for musicals, with the forward-thinking, adult-minded standalone success of Cabaret surrounded by the limp corpses of various dud attempts to emulate the family song-and-dance blockbusters of the 1960s.
Yet toward the end of the decade, a couple of smash hits showed a different path forward for the genre. Saturday Night Fever proved that you didn’t need unnatural on-screen singing to sell a film on scorching dance numbers and an infectious soundtrack: it was low-key realist drama that just happened to have happy feet and a head full of pounding disco bangers. The next year, Grease applied that pop sensibility (and John Travolta) to a more traditional musical form. It had bouncy Broadway-originated numbers but modest production values, while its mixture of radio-ready contemporary songcraft and the throwback nostalgia of its 1950s-set narrative engaged a surprising cross-section of generations. It was retro and current at once, as embodied in the out-of-time star presence of wholesome chart queen Olivia Newton-John: that, then, is where dollar signs lit up in the eyes of Xanadu’s producers Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver.
What they failed to notice in the same year as Grease, however, was the box office collapse of another musical that attempted to bridge misty Hollywood nostalgia with late-1970s glitter: The Wiz, Sidney Lumet’s gaudy, elephantine film of Broadway’s all-black Motown rewrite of The Wizard of Oz. And The Wiz was working from an inspired update of cast-iron source; Xanadu, by contrast, lifted the skeleton of a plot idea from Down to Earth, a little-remembered 1947 musical-comedy vehicle for Rita Hayworth, and decided to wing it from there. With Newton-John in Hayworth’s place, as if to turn it into Grease by sheer force of presence, and Gene Kelly to fill in the vintage half of the old-meets-new formula. Both of them on roller-skates, of course – if you don’t know what you’re doing, the thinking seems to have been, it helps to do it at speed.
The script, such as it was, existed mostly in theory: in response to Newton-John’s later claim that the film was being rewritten on the hoof, director Robert Greenwald tartly corrected, “It was being written on the hoof.” Its slender premise offered us Newton-John as the muse Terpsichore, brought to Earth as a sparkly wheel-footed dream girl for the sole purpose of helping feckless artist Sonny (Michael Beck) and washed-up big band leader Danny (Kelly) to realise their joint dream of opening a glam-rock-swing roller-disco in a disused Los Angeles auditorium. Terpsichore – nicknamed Kira, for reasons that make as much sense as her wardrobe of pastel dust-ruffle dresses and leg warmers – tells us that she has acted as muse to Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Beethoven in the past; this, however, is the project in which she finally feels emotional investment. The bar for character development and motivation in this kind of bauble is low: Xanadu never remotely rises to it.
Yet it’s as a screen musical that Xanadu fails most peculiarly, in spite of a slick, catchy songbook: 50% Olivia Newton-John and 50% Electric Light Orchestra, as if the film forgot its old-meets-new formula at the composition stage and simply opted to pit two disparate pop acts against each other. Thirty minutes pass before a full-scale musical number crops up in Xanadu: an Old Hollywood swing number between Newton-John and Kelly that’s at once the most polished thing here and makes the least sense in the context of the shambolic whole.
For the most part, Xanadu’s songs simply exist as incidental background music: Newton-John had a colossal No 1 hit in the US with the faintly hypnotic mid-tempo love song Magic, yet it’s never sung on screen, serving as audio filler for one of many swirly roller-skating scenes. ELO’s Don’t Walk Away is entirely extraneous accompaniment to an entirely extraneous fantasy cartoon reverie, beautifully animated by Don Bluth, that could be lifted wholesale from the film without a jot of difference to its shape or pace: at this point, Xanadu has become film-making by dartboard. The choreographed showpiece numbers fare no better, staged and edited to show hectic bustle but no distinct movement, and haphazard in construction throughout. You surely remember Xanadu’s film-closing title song: you may not recall that it’s presented in the film with leather-rock and country-and-western breakdowns in the middle for no discernible reason.
Xanadu’s sizable cult following will argue for it as a so-bad-it’s-good anomaly, though it’s more mesmerising than it is actually pleasurable: its mere existence is cause for fascination, yet there’s scarcely a human bone in its thrusting, misshapen body to love. It’s too freakish a one-off to have a palpable legacy, unless you count the substantial role it played in killing off the live-action film musical as a commercial force for a good two decades, at least until Moulin Rouge! revived the idea in its own hybrid, postmodern form, retaining maybe a strain of Xanadu’s queer, maximalist, poptacular DNA, but overwhelmed by a greater love for romantic golden-age varnish. It’s easier to treasure Xanadu as a mutant relic of a studio-movie age of risk, sometimes exhilarating and sometimes foolhardy: where substantial budgets were thrown at reckless ideas with zero franchise potential, whether they had been fully worked out or not.
The last major release to remind me of that kind of cavalier, grand-scale, what-was-anyone-thinking Hollywood folly was Tom Hooper’s demented, digital-fur-coated Cats: it’s unremittingly lousy too, but there’s something to love in the creative liberties it so extravagantly abused. There will never be another like it, just as there will never be another Xanadu, and as the long shadow of Covid-19 sends the film industry into rippling panic, you wonder when this kind of insanity, devised for the biggest and most gleaming of screens, will ever prevail again. “Guys like me shouldn’t dream anyway,” the film’s timber-brained hero mutters in its opening scene: 40 Xanadu years later, we have to agree, but we’re kind of glad he did.