Of all the pop-flavored camp-classic musical films of this era (Can’t Stop the Music, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Thank God It’s Friday, The Apple), this is the one that comes closest to actually being a respectable film.
True, it has no shortage of laughably stupid elements. The script, which basically recycles the plot of Kurt Weill’s classic Mary Martin vehicle One Touch of Venus, makes no sense at all and is full of ridiculous dialogue. The visuals, particularly during the musical numbers, are so bizarre as to be downright surreal, making the film feel uncomfortably like an actual acid trip. And Olivia Newton-John and her leading man, Michael Beck, are hopelessly bad actors.
But there are two elements of the film that are legitimately excellent. The first is Gene Kelly, in the final film of his career. He has something of a thankless part from an acting perspective, but he stills acts circles around his costars, and of course he gets a couple of chances to show off his legendary dancing abilities, including a surprisingly enjoyable roller-skating production number in the finale.
The other genuinely respectable aspect is the surprisingly excellent score. Half the songs were written by Pop-Prog outfit the Electric Light Orchestra deep in their disco phase, while the rest were written by Newton-John’s usual in-house songwriters, but both halves are much better than would be expected from those descriptions, with the Newton-John numbers is particular being a significant cut above her usual pop material.
The mysteriously seductive “Magic”, the raucously joyful “All Over the World”, and the luminous title-song have all lived on as popular radio staples to this day, with the opening number “I’m Alive” and the tender ballad “Suddenly” also doing some hit tune business. Oddly enough, the film’s best ballads, “Don’t Walk Away” and the torchy “Suspended in Time”, didn’t get the benefit of a single release, despite both being clear potential hits.
Ultimately though, two numbers stand out, and both of them are too deeply embedded in the context of the film to have worked as radio hits. The first is Gene Kelly’s Forties pastiche “Whenever You’re Away From Me”, a delightful song-and-dance duet with Newton-John that allows Kelly to do what he’s best at, marred only by Newton-John’s inability to really keep up with him on the dance floor.
The next is an extended sequence simply listed on the soundtrack album as “Dancin”. It begins when the two male leads find the spot for the club they’re planning to open, and start arguing what to do with it. Kelly imagines an old-fashioned Forties bandstand, which leads into an Andrews Sisters pastiche called “Forget About the Blues”. Meanwhile, Beck imagines a quintessential 80s Hard Rock band, leading to an utterly Eighties-sounding trash-rock anthem called “Lover, Won’t Take a Back Seat”. Then the Forties bandstand and the Eighties rock concert slowly merge into one, and the audience comes to the delicious realization that these two songs in vastly different musical idioms are actually written in flawless counterpoint.
Granted, the costuming for both these groups is beyond over-the-top, which some have complained about, but the trashiness of the visual trappings only serves to emphasize the thrilling culture shock that is felt when the groups come together…there are moments in the show’s visuals that could be chalked up to incompetence, but in this scene the effect was clearly deliberate.
And frankly, even when the visual effects in this movie are giggle-inducingly silly, they have a certain class and art-deco polish compared to most other films in their genre. For example, this isn’t the only musical film from around that time to have a pointless, out-of-nowhere animated sequence (The Pirate Movie and Song of Norway, just to name two examples, did the same thing), but at least Xanadu took the trouble to get Don Bluth to animate it, ensuring that even if the device was random and generally insane, at least the animation itself would look good.
For all its frequent ineptitude, it’s actually a surprisingly polished film in many ways, and given that it consists almost entirely of either enjoyably bad or legitimately good elements, it’s not surprising that audiences not only love it, but often seem oddly unconcerned about its status as a camp classic, preferring to simply enjoy it on its own terms rather than simply throw wisecracks at the screen like they would when watching something like Can’t Stop the Music.
Ultimately, the film, for all its disco sound and Eighties trappings, has more in common with the spirit of the early Hollywood musical comedies than is apparent from the surface, and its silliness is not really out of place for what it’s trying to be. In any case, the movie is one of the most enjoyable movie musicals of its decade, and whether you lump it in with the unintentional camp classics or simply consider it a lightweight, old-fashioned musical comedy with a few modern trimmings (as stated, it has elements of both), it’s still well worth a viewing or six either way.