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Olivia Newton-John in 'Xanadu'Sunday marks the 30th anniversary of the release of 'Xanadu,' the fantasy musical starring Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly that in many ways symbolized the glittery excesses of the late '70s. Directed by Robert Greenwald (who recently helmed several hard-hitting documentaries), 'Xanadu' was inspired by the '70s roller-disco craze and featured eye-boggling singin'/dancin'/skatin' scenes to music by Electric Light Orchestra, among other artists.

While Newton-John was following up the mega-successful 'Grease,' legendary hoofer Kelly was re-entering his movie-musical career after a long hiatus. The movie received mixed reviews and was a box office bomb, though its soundtrack would spawn several hits. Post-'Xanadu,' both stars would virtually abandon Hollywood, with Newton-John concentrating on music (she'd release the double-platinum 'Physical' LP the next year).

So, how does the movie hold up today? Has time been kind, or is it even cheesier than we remembered?

Thanks to endearing performances by its cast, healthy doses of camp, and general air of playfulness, the movie is surprisingly entertaining, especially if you have any nostalgia for the time period. It may be slight, silly and stylistically muddled, but in these cynical days 'Xanadu' comes off as, well, refreshing. And who doesn't enjoy nicely aged cheese? Olivia Newton-John in 'Xanadu'Sunday marks the 30th anniversary of the release of 'Xanadu,' the fantasy musical starring Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly that in many ways symbolized the glittery excesses of the late '70s. Directed by Robert Greenwald (who recently helmed several hard-hitting documentaries), 'Xanadu' was inspired by the '70s roller-disco craze and featured eye-boggling singin'/dancin'/skatin' scenes to music by Electric Light Orchestra, among other artists.

While Newton-John was following up the mega-successful 'Grease,' legendary hoofer Kelly was re-entering his movie-musical career after a long hiatus. The movie received mixed reviews and was a box office bomb, though its soundtrack would spawn several hits. Post-'Xanadu,' both stars would virtually abandon Hollywood, with Newton-John concentrating on music (she'd release the double-platinum 'Physical' LP the next year).

So, how does the movie hold up today? Has time been kind, or is it even cheesier than we remembered?

Thanks to endearing performances by its cast, healthy doses of camp, and general air of playfulness, the movie is surprisingly entertaining, especially if you have any nostalgia for the time period. It may be slight, silly and stylistically muddled, but in these cynical days 'Xanadu' comes off as, well, refreshing. And who doesn't enjoy nicely aged cheese?



'Xanadu' posterThe Story
Michael Beck, fresh from 'The Warriors,' plays Sonny, a frustrated artist toiling at an L.A. record label, where he paints enlargements of album covers. He becomes smitten with the image of a girl on a cover; she turns out to be Kira (Newton-John, looking lovelier than ever), a Muse sent to inspire him (knowledge of Greek mythology helpful but not required).

Sonny glimpses Kira rolling around town and finally catches up with her in a decrepit old Art Deco theater where she practices skating, but she's elusive and slips away. Meanwhile, he meets Danny (Kelly), a clarinetist who once owned a club in New York City and played with Glenn Miller before giving up music for a career in construction. He dreams of opening another music joint and enlists Sonny to help. Turns out that a singer who looks remarkably like Kira was his Muse back in the day.

Kira, who's starting to return Sonny's feelings, suggests the old theater for the new club. Danny excitedly imagines the place filled with elegant, tux-wearing guests dancing to Big Band music while Sonny envisions a rocking New Wave-ish band with writhing dancers. Both visions compete with each other in a gigantic musical number before converging in a cheerful hybrid. "I love it!" cries Danny.


When Kira shows up at the theater reciting a few lines from Coleridge's poem 'Kubla Kahn' (which mentions Xanadu), Danny recognizes his Muse from the past and they agree on the name for the new club. Sonny again tries to pin her down and she's evasive ("I live with my sisters"), but they finally kiss and morph into a fantastically corny animation.

O. Newton-John and Gene Kelly in 'Xanadu'As their relationship (chastely) heats up, Kira finally reveals that she's Terpsichore, the Muse of dance (and, obviously, rollerskating) and again flees the forbidden romance. Sonny eventually finds her by skating right into an outdoor wall mural of the Muses, behind which is apparently Mt. Olympus. Though Zeus (or at least, his voice) is against Kira joining humanity because "other people have dreams," an older goddess sways the big guy into granting Kira either one night or forever on earth -- the gods can never get human time straight. No, plot isn't a strong point.


Then! A phantasmagorical opening night takes place at Xanadu, during which Kira and the Muses perform various numbers, then disappear, but she later reappears as a waitress delivering a drink (and eternal love?) to Sonny. The End.

Let's break it down:

The Stars
• Newton-John is a sweet, upbeat presence whose almost otherworldly prettiness makes her Musehood believable.
• Kelly, looking splendid at age 67, seems to have lost none of his dancing (or skating) skills, and his character is a lovable throwback to classic musicals.
• Beck is likable enough; despite an Andy Gibb-like shag and general cuteness, his subsequent movie career never took off.


Special Effects/Visuals
• Kira and her "sisters" are often outlined in glowing neon, representing their otherworldliness.
• Costumes are very much of the era: lots of body hugging, brightly-colored spandex, feathered hairdos and legwarmers.
• Many of the sets in general are eye-hurtingly colorful, not necessarily in a bad way.

Dialogue
Simplistic but fitting for what's basically a fairy tale: "Dreams die." "Not by themselves. We kill them." And, "So here we are, someone who believes that dreams come easy ..." "And someone who doesn't know what they believe in." Brilliant banter would be so beside the point, anyway.

Music
The soundtrack, which contained five Top 20 singles including 'Magic,' 'Xanadu' and 'All Over the World,' is a dizzying mishmash of styles, including The Tubes' hard campy rock, ELO's big symphonic sound, '40s swing and late 20th century showtuney pop. Oddly, it works. Buy the soundtrack


The Big Numbers
There are several musical numbers, choreographed by Kenny Ortega ('MIchael Jackson's This is It') among others, that went straight to camp heaven:
• The aforementioned Rockers versus Big Band showdown ('Dancin''), which is awesome.
• The animated Disney-ish duet between Kira and Sonny ("Don't Walk Away') -- pure, unmitigated cheese.
• The scene ('All Over the World') in which Kira and Sonny take Danny shopping for opening night "glitz," featuring Kelly in a variety of pimp-worthy outfits (yet somehow always looking elegant) -- mind-bogglingly great.
• The climactic opening night of Xanadu -- dancers roller-boogie, pop/lock and execute many other types of choreography -- which morphs into several different themes, each starring Newton John and the Muses performing in increasingly wilder outfits. Amazing.

This is a movie that, in retrospect, was just begging to made into a Broadway musical (which finally happened in 2007). While the stage version was pure camp, the movie straddles the fine line between awesomely bad and wildly entertaining. Those looking purely for fun will definitely find it in 'Xanadu.'