Written by: Jennifer Brousseau, special to CC2k
At first glance, the 80s kitsch classic Xanadu certainly seems harmless. It opens with classic images of a frustrated artist – in this case, a graphic artist and draftsman, scribbling and crumpling up drawings of a mysterious woman. Surely, we say, this well-intentioned movie won’t go on to become one of the most gleefully bananas – and completely fabulous – movies of the decade? Surely there’s no way that musical luminaries Olivia Newton-John (fresh off her performance in the triumphant Grease) and living legend Gene Kelly would be caught dead or dancing in a movie where no less than the gods of Olympus get actively involved in the opening of a maverick roller disco in southern California?
But no, as we watch, the frustrated artist – future books-on-tape regular Michael Beck – throws some of his crumpled-up rejects out his window, where the wind carries them to a mural near the Santa Monica pier that depicts nine muslin-clad babes in tasteful airbrush. The crumpled-up bits of artistic frustration then activate the nine babes, who leap out of the mural in neon-bright, multicolored halos of light and kick off the movie’s first musical number – Electric Light Orchestra’s “I’m Alive” – a shower-singing, dance-in-the-privacy-of-your-home, uplifting winner of a song.
OK, stop. ELO? Am I really defending a movie whose soundtrack is the sole product of gooshy techno-trance-mavens ELO?
Yes. Yes, I am.
Xanadu, though technically an 80s movie, echoes the decade that precedes it in much the same way that the gloss of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman presaged the decade to come. Its fabulous discoesque costumes and music dazzle the audience into a boogie fever trance, and thanks to the kick-ass music of the aforementioned Orchestra of Electric Light, we’re delighted to overlook the insane plot. Make no mistake: ELO’s score alone gives Xanadu both credibility and a lasting legacy in the world of movie musicals. The clever producers of Xanadu somehow managed to snag the superior talent of ELO, and in doing so, they gave us one of the great rock-opera soundtracks that’s not in a rock opera; an album whose track-for-track quality rivals Queen’s score for Flash Gordon.
Don’t believe me? Buy the soundtrack and play it when your friends are around – then be prepared to fight them off for it. It’s that good.
But why would anyone get involved in this mess – even cheesemeisters ELO? Maybe they thought that Xanadu was ahead of its time. Maybe they just couldn't grasp the sheer genius presented to them on the onscreen. Maybe.
Well, I can’t speak for the members of ELO or for Gene Kelly (who we’ll get to in a minute), but I know what drew me into this movie (besides the music, of course):
Remember the nine muslin-clad airbrushed babes in the halos of light? It turns out that these nine babes are the nine Muses from Greek (and kinda Roman) mythology. That’s right! The Muses! On the loose! In Santa Monica! I’m Alive!
I was 5 when I first saw Xanadu in all its glory on our brand-new cable television, and like many little girls, I was drawn to the magical. This movie showed me a group of fabulous young girls who were able to fly while surrounded with a halo of light – and were fabulous dancers and roller-skaters to boot! What more could a girl want?
But here’s the thing: As I watched, I paid close attention to the characters and their names. Near the end of the movie, Newton-John’s character is about to confess it all, including her real name (she had been calling herself Kira), to the Michael Beck character, Sonny, but she only gets out the first syllable, Ter, before he kisses her senseless.
So after hearing this mysterious syllable – Ter – and other exotic names (Zeus, Hera), I then grabbed my family’s ancient edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica – you know, the one that smelled like your grandparent’s house? I looked up the Muses and Zeus and Hera to find out just who they were. Each listing referenced another name that I then looked up and on it went. Eventually these volumes were littered with shreds of newspaper marking each listing I had looked up. Thus began my love affair with classical mythology. That’s right – I have a degree in this stuff because of Xanadu.
Every day I’d read and reread the pages I had marked up, Hoover’ing up the information into my alarmingly encyclopedic memory to be dispensed in such classic observations like my idea that Michael Jackson’s character in the “Billie Jean” video made stuff light up because he was a Greek god.
My mom loved that one, let me tell you!
No god was uninteresting and each description was read and reread more times that I can count. Certain figures did eventually became favorites and none of them were even featured in Xanadu. I quickly identified with Artemis, goddess of the hunt, and Athena, goddess of wisdom, who I’ll forgive for being the patron goddess of the shifty Odysseus – but I’ll get to him in another essay. Call it my interest as a young girl in seeing strong women as role models.
I spent trip after trip to to Walden Books with my mother in the mythology section. I got to know most mythologies from around the world, but the Greeks were and still are my favorite. Roman mythology is also appealing, but all they did was steal the Greek gods and give them new names – not very imaginative. Maybe that’s why we remember the Greeks for their wondrous vision and the Romans for their lack of tolerance.