Why people love ''Xanadu'' -- We look back at the Olivia Newton-John cult hit as Broadway prepares for its revival
At New York’s Helen Hayes Theatre, during an early June preview of Broadway’s latest song-laden screen-to-stage transfer, actor James Carpinello is about to reveal the dream of his character, Sonny. ”I would like to open a roller disco!” declares the actor, whose late-’70s-era attire of T-shirt, cutoffs, and high socks clashes, deliriously and deliberately, with the play’s set, which evokes ancient Greece. ”How timeless!” replies the musical’s female lead, Kerry Butler, a vision in a flowing pink dress and roller skates. Her words prompt a knowing howl of laughter from the audience. Though this crowd of twenty- and thirtysomethings is young by Broadway-musical standards, plenty here can remember a time when it seemed that roller disco would never go out of fashion. Tonight’s audience appears to be thoroughly enjoying the $4 million-plus production, which features Annie Hall star Tony Roberts. When it’s time for the final song, many are on their feet, clapping and singing.
Broadway productions based on box office hits are incredibly common these days. But what about shows based on Hollywood debacles? Some critics counted this film among the worst ever committed to celluloid. When it was released, in 1980, the London Evening News described it as ”the most dreadful, tasteless movie of the decade.” It has become a byword for cinematic catastrophe. It helped consign the big-screen musical to the dustbin for decades. Its name?
The musical fantasy — starring Olivia Newton-John as the leg-warmer-wearing lead (and Greek Muse) — almost single-handedly spawned the Golden Raspberry Awards, an annual celebration of onscreen dreck. After paying 99 cents to see a double bill of Xanadu and the Village People epic Can’t Stop the Music, ”Razzies” founder John Wilson demanded a refund but was refused. ”Xanadu is a touchstone of movie wretchedness,” he rages 27 years later. ”Seeing Gene Kelly, who did Singin’ in the Rain, doing these clunky roller-disco moves with people throwing bowling pins over his head — it is almost like he had gone to hell before he died.”
The plot of the movie Xanadu, though bizarre, is easy enough to describe: A frustrated painter named Sonny (Michael Beck) decides to open a roller disco after meeting a comely, but mysterious skater named Kira (Newton-John). He’s helped by a jazz musician-turned-construction magnate (Kelly) who, decades before, had a relationship with someone who eerily resembled Kira. In fact, however, Newton-John’s character is an ancient Muse whose romantic feelings for Sonny transgress immortal law. Eventually their love triumphs over this obstacle. The End.
What this summary leaves out are the film’s amateurish special effects, which include silhouetting Newton-John in a supposedly ethereal glow (which actually makes her look like she’s just returned from a holiday in Chernobyl). Nor does it highlight a conclusion so abrupt it makes the last episode of The Sopranos seem like a model of dramatic closure. And then there’s the raft of laughably terrible lines: ”I’m a Muse!” Newton-John attempts to tell Beck at one point. ”I’m glad somebody’s having a good time,” he replies.
Though technically an ’80s film, Xanadu was very much a product of the late ’70s, a period when studio executives were scrambling for ways to entertain the young moviegoers who were flocking to Star Wars, Grease, and Saturday Night Fever. At times, this music-driven mix of fantasy and romance seems to have been Frankenstein-ed together from footage cut from those three movies. But Xanadu tapped into something new: the then hugely popular phenomenon of roller disco. A dazzling, pastel-heavy take on late-’70s skater chic permeates the entire movie, from the interior of its titular roller palace to Newton-John’s many costumes — which still loom large in the memory of Xanadu director Robert Greenwald: ”One of the points I think it’s important to make is the hidden political meaning in the film. I want people to look carefully for the politics in the leg warmers.”
Greenwald is joking, of course. The 61-year-old has spent the last few years directing documentaries like Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism; Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price; and Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers. And he’s not the only one of Xanadu‘s architects whose participation seems incongruous in hindsight. This testosterone-free cinematic confection was produced by Larry Gordon, who went on to make Predator and Die Hard, and co-produced by Joel Silver. Yes, that Joel Silver, the action-movie titan who partnered with Gordon on Die Hard and Predator and spearheaded other ballistics-heavy extravaganzas like Hudson Hawk and The Matrix. In 1979 Silver was a young executive hell-bent on producing a discofied remake of the 1947 Rita Hayworth vehicle Down to Earth. It was a project Silver wanted to make so badly that he once claimed he was prepared to ”stab myself in the back” to get it off the ground. (Silver declined to be interviewed for this story.)
”You have to understand that Joel loves musicals,” explains Gordon. ”I think when he came [to L.A.], he was more familiar with musicals than action films.” Newton-John, then white-hot from the success of Grease, was an obvious choice to play Kira. She, in turn, suggested an unknown Australian named Mel Gibson be cast opposite her. Instead, the part was given to Beck, who’d starred in Gordon and Silver’s previous collaboration, The Warriors.
The production, which began principal photography in September 1979, was often turbulent. Newton-John broke her coccyx during a roller-skating lesson. (”It was very painful,” she remembers. ”But the show must go on, right?”) And then there was the script, which according to the actress was being rewritten on the hoof during filming.
”I wish it was being rewritten on the hoof,” sighs Greenwald. ”It was being written on the hoof! In my enthusiasm for the idea of doing a musical, I signed on before there was really any kind of script.” (To be fair, as Gordon points out, ”a lot of movies are rewritten all the way through production.”)
”You were not quite sure why you were doing what you were doing,” recalls Kenny Ortega, one of the film’s choreographers, who went on to mastermind the dance scenes in One From the Heart and Dirty Dancing before directing Disney’s hugely successful High School Musical TV movie. ”You know, it’s kind of nice to know what’s taking you into a musical number and why you’re coming out of it.”
Xanadu was released in August 1980, backed by a lavish marketing campaign that included Xanadu boutiques in department stores, where copies of the film’s costumes could be purchased. But the disco beat that had hypnotized America in the wake of 1977’s Saturday Night Fever was now causing a nationwide headache. On July 12, 1979, just a few weeks before filming began on Xanadu, a ”Disco Demolition Derby” was held at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, during which 10,000 dance-floor-friendly records were blown up with explosives. Disco no longer ruled. In the lingo of the new era, disco ”sucked.” And then the movie critics weighed in. Variety called it ”Truly stupendously bad!” Roger Ebert, ”Mushy and limp!” Esquire, ”In a word: Xana-don’t!”
”Yeah, the reviews were vitriolic,” recalls Newton-John, whose voice still sounds Sandy-from-Grease perky, even when considering her bad notices. ”Now I can look back fondly — so many years have gone by. But when it was really close to when we made it, I thought, ‘Why did I do that?”’
”The film was a disaster,” says Michael Cotten, a member of rock band the Tubes, who performed in one of the film’s musical numbers. ”I wasn’t surprised how bad the reviews were, because mostly I agreed. It was just a train wreck — a big, giant, colorful train wreck.”
Box office results weren’t totally dismal: Made for a budget between $9 and $13 million, Greenwald says, Xanadu grossed $22 million domestically. And its soundtrack — featuring lots of Newton-John and the Electric Light Orchestra — sold more than 2 million copies and launched five hit singles. But the bad reviews and instant datedness combined to surround the project with an atmosphere of calamitous failure. Beck would never again star in a major movie; lately he’s been narrating audiobooks, including Bill Clinton’s autobiography. The film also cooled Newton-John’s post-Grease heat, although it was the 1983 release of Two of a Kind — her critically reviled reunion with John Travolta — that really ended her big-screen ambitions.
But that’s not the only reason the actress looks back on Xanadu with mixed emotions.
Michael Owen Perry was an extremely disturbed young man who, in the summer of 1983, was living in a trailer behind his parents’ house in Port Arthur, La., having escaped from a mental institution. After watching Xanadu, Perry became convinced that Newton-John really was a Greek goddess — one who was responsible for the corpses Perry hallucinated were rising up through his floor, and one who communicated with him by changing the color of her eyes. Perry even wrote a letter to the actress in which he explained, ”I heard voices and the voices said to me that you are a Muse and trapped under Lake Arthur.”
On July 17 of that year, Perry armed himself with guns, including a .357 Magnum and a Beretta pistol. He then embarked on a shooting spree, killing two of his cousins, a 2-year-old nephew, and his parents — whom he shot through the eyes — before departing for points unknown. In his parents’ house Perry left a Kill Bill-style death list of names including ”Olivia.”
A nationwide manhunt ensued and, on July 31, Perry was apprehended at Washington, D.C.’s Annex Hotel. In his room police found nine television sets. All of them were tuned to static and some had eyes drawn on their screens in felt pen. Perry was convicted of the murders in 1985. He remains on death row to this day.
”I guess because I was playing this ethereal character, he got reality and show business confused,” says Newton-John, all perkiness drained from her voice. ”I left the country for a while. That was a very scary time.”
”In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree…”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 19th-century poem ”Kubla Khan” is a classic of Western literature. But the film Xanadu — yes, also inspired by the opulent summer capital of the Mongolian Empire — has become a classic of sorts too. A classic of camp.
”I’ve had people for years pulling up into my driveway with Xanadu blasting in their cars,” says Ortega. ”At first I thought it was some kind of weird joke. Then I discovered they were very sincere.”
This unabashedly flamboyant disco epic has a particularly strong following with women and the gay community. In 2002, a sell-out ”Xanadu Sing-Along” took place at Hollywood’s 1,200-capacity John Anson Ford Amphitheatre as part of Outfest, L.A.’s annual gay and lesbian film festival. ”It’s a mess of a movie,” Outfest programmer Shannon Kelley admitted at the time. ”But it’s our mess.” The previous year, a stage parody of the movie titled Xanadu Live! ran in Los Angeles. Its director, Annie Dorsen, described the film as ”the queerest movie that’s not actually about being gay.”
Robert Ahrens, an assistant at Paramount studios, had gone to see Xanadu Live! Soon after, he quit his job and embarked on what would be a five-year quest to bring Xanadu to the stage. ”I was a fan of the soundtrack as a teenager,” says Ahrens, now 37. ”I was a little disappointed by the film. But after I saw the version in L.A., I thought, It does have a big cult following. There’s something here.”
Ahrens’ first hurdle was securing permission to do the show, which ”took years because there’s five different rights holders.” He also had a hard time with funding and cast. ”As soon as you say Xanadu,” he explains, ”they either get it right away, or they look down on you and then they call the police.”
One person who initially declined to be involved was Douglas Carter Beane, the screenwriter of To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar and the man Ahrens thought would be perfect to write his new stage version of Xanadu.
”I passed, quickly, many times,” Beane recalls. ”Then he said, ‘You can do whatever you want with it.”’
Beane resolved to keep the film’s hits, including the chart-topping ”Magic,” and the basic plot, but lose almost everything else. ”It has a great score, but the dialogue is bad,” Beane says of the film. ”And the plotting is abandoned. The first time I saw it I thought that they had misplaced a reel. My version has quaint little additions like character development. There are actually just five lines from the movie that are in the play.”
But if Ahrens thought he could escape from the curse of Xanadu, he was mistaken. Last February, Tony-winning actress Jane Krakowski, who had been slated to play Kira, left the project, claiming it would clash with her schedule on 30 Rock. Then, on June 12, just two weeks before the show was due to open, Sonny, a.k.a. James Carpinello, broke his ankle in three places while roller-skating at a rehearsal. Cheyenne Jackson (All Shook Up) has replaced him, and opening night is pushed to July 10. On the plus side? Ahrens says that ticket sales for the previews have been ”good and growing every week.”
”Gay men never miss a Joel Silver film,” says Beane when asked to explain the appeal of Xanadu. ”He’s the Judy Garland of our generation, Joel. People say, ‘Wait a minute, is that the guy that produced Hudson Hawk? We’re there!”
Beane, too, is joking. But at least one man sees Xanadu and its potential as no laughing matter. ”I don’t usually take these calls,” growls film producer Gordon. ”But I like this movie. I can’t tell you how many people — girls especially — love Xanadu. They come in my office, they see the one-sheet and they go, ‘Oh my God, I love that.’ Is it a good or bad movie? How do you judge that crap? I don’t know. But I can’t wait to see the show. I hope they have a big smash. Maybe we’ll make a Xanadu 2.”
BLAME IT ON THE BOOGIE
Think Xanadu was a mess? These other over-the-top rock musicals make it look like Citizen Kane.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)
A hapless desecration of the Beatles’ back catalog featuring the Bee Gees, Aerosmith, Steve Martin, George Burns… Well, you get the picture (although don’t actually get the picture).
Can’t Stop the Music (1980)
No movies about the formation of Led Zeppelin or Nirvana, but a full one on the Village People? The fictionalized disco schlocker is a career low for all involved — except Steve Guttenberg.
The film that launched a thousand ”all that glitters isn’t any damn good”-type quips. Mariah Carey’s acting chops and chest-hugging costumes are both overstretched in this lame A Star Is Born rip-off.
From Justin to Kelly (2003)
Exec-produced by American Idol‘s Simon Fuller, the cheap, cheerless season-1 cash-in retooled the beach-musical genre as a vehicle for Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini.