Let’s make something clear from the outset: Gene Kelly was a national treasure. I’m not a big “old movie” watcher, but damn if Singing in the Rain doesn’t hold up to the test of time. And a lot of that has to do with Mr. Gene Kelly.
Which makes his presence in Xanadu—which ended up being his final movie—somewhat mystifying. He’s better than this. So much better than this. However, in being so, the man adds a touch of class to a movie that would otherwise be a glorious clusterfuck of holy whatness.
Because this movie does not make a lick of sense, and I think we all know this. I mean, the plot goeth thusly: an artist (Sonny, played by Michael Beck) is tired of working for the man, and his muse shows up and teams him up with Gene Kelly, and they open a roller disco together. THAT’S IT.
The more I think about it, the more confused I am by this. Specifically: given the Point A that Sonny starts at, how reaching Point B at the end is possibly considered a win. I mean, I get that he’s a struggling artist who just wants to do his art on not answer to the man… that makes sense, in an immature kind of way. Yeah, he’s having a petty hissy fit about purity of art, but some artists do that. He wants to paint and draw what he wants, not what those corporate types want to dictate to him! Fine. Understandable character motivation.
But what in the name of the nine muses does that have to do with running a roller-disco club?
And, hey, lets get into that whole nine muses thing, since that’s a key element of the story. Olivia Newton-John plays a literal daughter-of-Zeus muse. Named Kira. Now, I know my muses: Clio, Thalia, Erato, Euterpe, Polyhymnia, Calliope, Terpsichore, Urania, Melpomene. No Kira. Now, I’ve seen some claim that Kira is really Terpsichore, but I say that’s retconning bullshit. Because this movie gives no sign that the maker had any idea that the muses had specific names or roles. They’re just nine hot ladies in flowing dresses, and eight of them don’t do squat.
Plus when Sonny confronts Zeus, Zeus calls her “Kira”. So don’t try to sell me that “she’s really Terpsichore” crap.
But who cares about all that? This movie is about crazy, crazy musical numbers with Olivia Newton-John and ELO. Muses coming to life from a mural? That’s a musical number. Shopping for clothes? That’s a musical number. Falling in love? That’s a musical number with Don Bluth animation.
And dreaming up this crazy club that would be run by classy Gene Kelly and not-doing-art-for-the-man Sonny? You know that’s a musical number. In fact, that’s my favorite, where Gene is dreaming up a big band number with Olivia fronting an Anderson Sistersesque trio, and Sonny is dreaming up a “hot band” that’s as early 80s New Wave as you can get. (The Tubes, actually). OK, it’s more correct to say that the Anderson Sisters thing is clearly Olivia singing, but the three girls up there doing the bit are very much not Olivia. And the “80s” vision is some serious retro-sci-fi nightmare fuel. But, while the 40s-style song is fine enough, and the 80s-style song is pretty weak sauce… I have to admit, when the two songs come together, I kind of dig it.
Absolutely zero plot is expended in “how will we start a new dance club?”. The idea is brought up, and then they’re going to open it. There really are no roadblocks whatsoever. Gene decided he wants to open a club and told Sonny, “And you’re my partner!”, and they’re off to the races. Done deal. The only impediment to a perfect opening night is that Kira, being a Muse and subject to the arbitrary rules of musedom or something, has to go back into her painting. Because she did her job and inspired Sonny—the artist and painter— to open a dance club.
Yeah, I’m not going to let that go.
Zeus lets her go to the opening night anyway, so it really isn’t a big deal. Clearly the people who made this movie realized there wasn’t a scrap of conflict, so they had to add a touch of drama. I mean, really, this movie has barely a wisp of actual content. It’s filled with songs and dances, and still clocks in at under 90 minutes. So there isn’t much time to actually talk or have a plot or anything.
With that out of the way, it’s time to get the club open. And by “get the club open” I mean create a roller-derby fascist zoot-suited nightmare. Clapping, stomping in unison, matching outfits and shouting “XANADU!” together. Even granting that its 80-ness has aged poorly, it is deeply, deeply disturbing. But yet it’s exactly the sort of club that Stefan from SNL would love. It’s got everything. Roller-skating tap dance. Mimes on tightropes. Sci-fi space queens. I imagine if someone wandered into this club, they would presume they had stumbled upon a cult. Which it kind of is, because then it ends with huge TOTALLY INSANE song and dance number with all nine muses where they jump around through different musical styles magically. I’m not sure who thought having Olivia switching on a dime from glamrock sexpot to cowboy girl was a good idea.
Frankly, there were very few good ideas in this movie. Save giving Gene Kelly a dance number with Olivia dressed in a WWII Uniform. That was excellent. Because that man was a national treasure.