Xanadu is an underrated delight, disco skating and all

“Oh, for a muse of fire… to ascend the brightest heavens… of invention.”

I’ve been chasing a muse for years. And I blame Olivia Newton John.

When I was 11 years old, I saw Xanadu. And it was a revelation, as much as Star Wars was a revelation a few years before. Xanadu was the first musical I ever saw, besides The Wizard of Oz… and at the time it had three immediate effects on the young Joe.

First, it made me a fan of the surreal ludicrous genre called “The Musical”, movies that have musical numbers and extensive choreography happen at the drop of a hat – reason and logic be damned. I discovered the sheer joy of watching happy people prance, happily, on screen.

Second, it brought to my attention the talented Gene Kelly, who, though he was past his prime in the film, was still a Movie Star (capital M, capital S) and boy does he work it (and know it). It is thanks to Xanadu that I searched out An American in Paris, and (one of my favorite films) Singin’ in the Rain.

Third, it brought me the Electric Light Orchestra. The music of Jeff Lynne and company impressed me so much I stole my sister’s Xanadu soundtrack, and played the heck out of it until I could afford a copy of my own. I bought every album ELO made, and I’m fan to this very day. It’s perfect pop music, done well and entertaining as all get-out.

Looking back now, I can see a lot more in the film that influenced me… especially it’s theme. Yes, folks, Xanadu had subtext. The movie is about creativity, and failure, and finding our muse… it’s about dreaming, and making your dreams come true.

It’s trite, it’s hokey, it’s completely unrealistic. And yet, for the optimist in me, this resonates. It rings true. I WANT it to be true. If only life worked out as it did in Xanadu… well, maybe with less roller disco.

“What the hell, guys like me shouldn’t dream anyway.” That’s the first line spoken in the film, as Jeff beck’s character reflects on a sketch that isn’t right. As a creative person, who hasn’t said something like that? Art is WORK, and the illusions that there is some form of rare “genius” that produces great work is just that… an illusion.

I rewatched Xanadu after I had just seen another film about creativity and art… Tim’s Vermeer, a film by Teller (of Penn and Teller) that tells the story of a man who tried to figure out the techniques of Vermeer in order to create his own “masterpiece.” Tim’s Vermeer details a man obsessed, who spends countless hours working on building a mechanism that would recreate the work of the master painter. A technician becomes an artist because of compulsion. He HAS to.

I know that compulsion. It’s what drives me to write instead of sit on my fat ass and watch reruns on TV.

It’s the main part why Xanadu works for me, not just the nostalgia… it’s because of that message. I think we are at our core creative creatures. We exist to make things, add flavor and color to the universe. If we don’t even try, in the littlest of things… it’s then that we truly fail.

We are all here to create. To build our own Xanadu.

All this pretension, to write about a 1980s musical flop? Yup. Because Xanadu is the poster child for this review series. Neglected Cinema is about highlighting the diamonds in the rough, the gems that most people overlooked. Xanadu is a movie that has a lot to recommend, and should get more attention and appreciation.

It’s far from perfect, though… And I have to be honest inmy appraisal. Jeff Beck as the protagonist is the very definition of “nondescript” and because the lead lacks charisma the film is weaker and less effective. The tone is uneven, the dialogue clunky in many spots, and the plot has no clear through-line. And while I think Olivia Newton-John is a beautiful woman who sings and dances her heart out here… she could have benefitted from a couple of more acting lessons. But, flawes and all, Xanadu is a lovely film… and a great way to spend 90 minutes.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to chasing my muse. Hopefully I’ll catch her someday… and she’ll look like Olivia.

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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