Sunday, August 17, 2008

A place where nobody (not even TCM) dared to go

Today is Gene Kelly's day on TCM, with TCM showing a lot of his musicals while he was working with the Freed Unit at MGM in the 1940s and 1950s. I've recommended some classics like Singin' In the Rain before, while there are movies for which TCM might not have been able to acquire the broadcast rights, such as The Young Girls of Rochefort. However, Gene Kelly's last musical isn't airing on TCM today -- and even if they could get the rights to it, they might not show it. It's the classic 1980 mess Xanadu.

The basic plot is taken from another movie recently aired on TCM, Rita Hayworth's Down to Earth: a Greek muse helps a man live out his dream, falling in love with him along the way. Now, in and of itself, that doesn't sound like such a bad idea. Help from above has appeared in some of the all-time greats, like It's a Wonderful Life. However, Xanadu has a lot against it. First off is the dream that the male lead has: to open a roller disco. This was 1980, when disco was already dying, but I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that Hollywood got on the bandwagon too late. It wouldn't be the first time they missed a trend, and given how derivative everything in Hollywood is, it hasn't been the last, either. Our male lead himself is a problem, too: it's now little-known Michael Beck, who would go on to a long but undistinguished career playing one-episode roles on TV. Here, he fits what Hollywood apparently though women found sexy in the Man of 1980: long, wavy, dirty blond hair; and a shirt unbuttoned halfway down the chest. (Just watch the old Match Game episodes on GSN and see how many of the male celebrities are wearing unbuttoned shirts, including those in their 50s. It's truly frightening. At least the pencil-thin ties of the 1980s looked respectable.)

Anyhow, Beck is helped by that Greek muse, played by the lovely Olivia Newton-John, who is really here for her looks and for the fact that she can sing. She provides half the soundtrack, and is pretty good in that regard. The other help is Gene Kelly, playing a retired big-band clarinetist who is apparently trying to relive his youth through helping Back open Xanadu. Kelly's musical numbers are visually the best part of the movie, perhaps the only parts that aren't a mess. There's one relatively imaginative number involving a "franchise glitz dealer" in which Gene tries to enunciate his idea for the look of the club, and we get to see him transported back to the 1940s for one final time in his career.

But perhaps the best of all is the final musical number, once Beck and Kelly have finally gotten the club opened. Kelly walks in in a tux, and then gets to spend the rest of the scene on roller skates, prancing around to the title song, trying gamely to make this musical into something halfway decent. Lord knows he's trying, but even Gene Kelly couldn't save Xanadu from being anything more than a "so bad it's good" cult movie.

Having said that, the one other good thing besides Kelly is the music. I've mentioned the Olivia Newton-John songs, but the title song is a duet with her being backed by symphonic rock pioneers ELO. They add several songs to the soundtrack, all of which are a surprisingly good mix of symphonic rock and some slightly disco sounds. There's one other duet, the love ballad Suddenly, sung by Netwon-John and British favorite Cliff Richard. Unfortunately, this number is performed against a bizarre animated sequence that left me (and a lot of the other critics I've read) asking, "What the hell were they thinking?"

As I said, Xanadu is more of a cult movie than anything else. As long as you go into it not expecting a movie coming within a hundred miles of Gene Kelly's earlier works, you can sit back and have a lot of laughs, and hum some fairly fun songs. It's available on DVD, too, so you don't have to wait for TCM to show it.

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