The film opens by introducing Sonny Malone, a Californian artist fighting an existential crisis: he has a job painting large murals of album artwork for record shops, but isn’t creating anything artistically fulfilling. “What the hell, guys like me shouldn’t dream, anyway,” he exclaims at one point. First of all, dude, you have a paying job doing what you love—suck it up and enjoy it. Then it cuts to the first song in the movie, called “I’m Alive,” which accompanies a mural of painted girls, quite appropriately, coming to life and entering the world in a blaze of neon and ballet. Seriously, watch the video and try to keep the image of a coked-out homeless guy out of your head. You can’t. It’s that ridiculous. You feel slightly uncomfortable watching it (I can feel the others here in the library judging me for watching these clips) but there’s no other reaction you can have than to just laugh. Laugh at the producers for thinking this was okay, laugh at the actresses for agreeing to do this, laugh at yourself for watching this, laugh to combat how awkward Xanadu is. You’ll learn to love it.
One of the girls (Olivia Newton John) from the painting skates up to Sonny, kisses him, and skates away as she morphs into a glowing yellow neon ball. Apparently, etiquette in Chalk Zone is quite different from the real world. He recognizes her in an album cover that he has to paint for a store by a group called The Nine Sisters. When he finally finds her, we’re treated the most boring, lazily-shot romantic scene ever, wherein the girl, Kira, introduces herself to Sonny while roller-skating around an abandoned auditorium. The camera literally follows her for the entire duration of the song “Magic” as the two engage in some of the most forced dialogue ever committed to celluloid. ‘We have to fall in love right now because this is the point in most screenplays where the leads meet and fall in love.’
Unbeknownst to Sonny, Kira is actually an Olympian Muse sent down to earth to inspire struggling artists and encourage them to follow their passion. Thanks to Kira, Sonny teams up with Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly), a former Big Band leader, to turn the dilapidated auditorium into a new nightclub. The rest of the movie focuses on the zero trials and tribulations that stand in the trio’s way to get the nightclub started. This plot makes absolutely no sense. There is nothing that Greek Goddesses and roller-discos have in common, but they sure as hell tried to make it work. The dialogue is so incredibly trite and random that when the movie climaxes on the club’s opening night, you wonder how the hell you got there. The best example of the complete lack of chemistry between the three leads is in this scene, which features a classic dressing room montage, zany special effects, and the tackiest outfits you could ever imagine, even for the 80s.
Of course, the other main focus of the story is the love story between Sonny and Kira, which is forbidden by Zeus; an immortal goddess cannot fall in love with a mortal. Obviously. How is this plotline resolved? A single three-and-a-half minute shot of Olivia Newton John singing. I guess what they lacked in dynamic camera movement and onscreen charisma, they thought they could make up for in neon. It doesn’t work. In fact, the same could be said about the rest of the movie. The superimposed neon effects, oddly sci-fi sound cues, and faded film, though supposed to represent memories or supernatural elements, are all steps in the wrong direction. They make the film more absurd, not more carefree or magical. See also: the film’s animated sequence, which is more akin to Gerald Scarfe’s disturbing animations for Pink Floyd’s The Wall than the silly Disney animation it’s trying to be.
Xanadu is the cinematic equivalent of unicorn diarrhea. It’s got only a fraction of the fun sensibility that The Rocky Horror Picture Show has while being infinitely weirder and much more pointless. It’s got a solid soundtrack, but it’s hard to escape the fact that these songs are used in such an atrocious movie when you listen to them on their own. When the credits start to roll, you’ll be floored that anybody thought Xanadu was a good idea.
This article is part of NUFEC's Bad Movies series. Find Xanadu on Amazon here.