DIRECTED BY: Robert Greenwald

FEATURING: Olivia Newton-John, Michael Beck, Gene Kelly, Matt Lattanzi, James Sloyan

PLOT: Sonny Malone is a gifted artist reduced to designing album covers, but when he meets former big band leader Danny McGuire, the duo join forces with an Olympian muse open a roller disco club.

Still from Xanadu (1980)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Xanadu is campy, kitschy and appalling, but it’s not weird. It’s just one of the last death rattles of the disco era.

COMMENTS: La La Land may have revived the movie musical, which has been on life support for decades because of flops like Xanadu. This film spawned a soundtrack album (deliriously overproduced by the Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne) that was a monster hit in 1980, spawning five top 20 singles. The movie itself, however, bombed, and rightfully so. It’s inoffensive, embarrassing piffle. Made on a big budget, Xanadu still looks cheap, and director Robert Greenwald , who later made The Burning Bed and several progressive-minded documentaries, doesn’t really seem to know how to stage musical numbers, despite choreography from Kenny Ortega (High School Musical). Michael Beck, fresh off the macho action classic The Warriors, looks embarrassed (he never starred in a movie again), and poor 68-year-old Gene Kelly makes his unfortunate farewell to musicals in this dud. Olivia Newton-John is beautiful but cannot act—although she was much better in Grease—-while director Don Bluth (An American Tail) contributes a weak animated segment.

Practically all memory of the film vanishes right after you’ve seen it. Xanadu is sort of a remake of the indifferently received 1947 Rita Hayworth musical Down to Earth, while Kelly also played a character named Danny McGuire in the 1944’s Cover Girl opposite Hayworth. Either of those films has to better than Xanadu, which only Newton-John may still remember fondly: the young Danny McGuire is played in flashback by dancer-actor Matt Lattanzi, who later became her husband. No amount of fake glitter and flash can salvage this Lattanzi-Newton John family album, however: the climactic musical number involves a series of revolving stages that reminded me of the old Disneyland show “America Sings”. I’d rather sit through “America Sings” again. In fact, those who want to experience Xanadu should listen to the soundtrack album (featuring Newton John, ELO, Cliff Richard, and the Tubes)  instead of slumbering through this decidedly non-weird musical relic of the Studio 54 era.

Someone apparently had pleasant, perhaps drug-induced memories of the picture, because in 2007 Xanadu was adapted into a modestly produced Broadway musical (starring “30 Rock”‘s Cheyenne Jackson) that was nominated  for a few Tony awards. In the end, Xanadu may be recalled chiefly as being part of the “great”—or awful—disco musical trend of 1980, which also gave us the infamous Village People vehicle Can’t Stop the Music. Anecdotally, unfortunate moviegoer John J.B. Wilson saw both films at a 99-cent double feature and came up with the idea of the Razzie awards, “honoring” the year’s worst films, which are still held today. At least Xanadu has better songs than Can’t Stop the Music.


“To appreciate the madness within, one must take in the blinding neon sights with an open heart and at least one nostril-coating line of cocaine. Surely I hold no certainty that ‘Xanadu’ was fueled by heaping spoonfuls of Bolivian marching powder, but I offer this evidence: it was 1980 and the picture is bonkers.”–Brian Orndoff, (DVD)

7 thoughts on “CAPSULE: XANADU (1980)”

  1. “Lala Land revived the movie musical, which had been on life support for decades”?

    “Moulin Rouge,” “Chicago,” “Annie,” “Into the Woods,” “Sweeney Todd”…

    1. South Park…
      in Australia, Xanadu was a huge hit, since there’s no movie too campy for Australians (see also Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which has the advantage of being good). When my local cult movie night screened The Apple, they called it a less-popular Xanadu.

    2. You’ve actually got a legitimate point there. The live-action movie musical pretty much died in the 90’s, but in the 2000’s it sort of made a comeback. LALA LAND is unusual in that it was made directly for the screen, instead of being adapted from the stage. You can count hits like that in the last 50 years on one hand-MARY POPPINS, LA LA LAND…I can’t think of another.

  2. And speaking of campy musicals popular in Australia, I think the list is incomplete without mentioning “The Pirates of Penzance” — one of the campiest (and, also, one of the more enjoyable) musicals I’ve seen. I suppose having a Victorian pedigree allows it to scale Camps heights enough to be in eye-shot of “legitimate”.

    Also, watching Kevin Klein when he still enjoyed himself on screen is quite a treat in and of itself.

  3. Xanadu.

    Sweet, sweet Xanadu.

    I saw this movie in the theatre, TWICE, in ’80. I own the soundtrack on vinyl as well as CD, and there’s a DVD of it on my shelf somewhere. The themes in it echo in me, deep, deep inside. I love the way it looks, I love the way it feels, and I love the way everything lights up for no goddamn reason.

    It’s a terrible movie.

    1. P.S.: I’ve never used drugs in my life, and I don’t even drink. It’s entirely possible to enjoy this movie while totally sober.

      Same goes for “Voyage of the Rock Aliens”, so don’t go there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *