Dear Xanadu,

I must have been about 13 when we met. HBO was new to my suburban Orange County life, and a group of movies is chunked together in my experience of that brave new world of programming. Raging Bull. Brubaker. Fame. And you, Xanadu.

I can’t say you made a very good impression on me. I didn’t have any feeing for musicals (I liked Grease, but kind of in spite of the fact of people inexplicably bursting into song), so you really didn’t have a chance.

Back then I wasn’t what you’d call a cinephile. I was 13, after all, and not a particularly sophisticated 13-year-old, at that. But even I could see that you lacked polish in some spots, that your acting performances were wooden, that you just didn’t look as “professional” as most of your HBO-broadcast cohort.

What I did dig was the rock music. Along with Blondie and the Rolling Stones, the Electric Light Orchestra made the music that first struck a chord. My first-ever concert was E.L.O. at the Fabulous Forum. I owned 45s of “Magic”, “Xanadu”, and “All Over the World” (my friend Mike across the street had “I’m Alive”). I even thought “Whenever You’re Away from Me” (the B-side of “Xanadu”) was okay—probably the first instance of my finding that type of song tolerable.

But however much I enjoyed these trees, I couldn’t see the forest that you were. Almost nobody did, it seems. To this day your greatest fame is as inspiration for the Golden Raspberry Awards, which for the last three-and-a-half decades have been handed out to (dis)honor the worst of the year in cinema. What people don’t remember is that, despite garnering several nominations, you took home only one statuette: Robert Greenwald won for Worst Director. Of course, considering that Stanley Kubrick was nominated alongside him, it’s obvious that the Golden Raspberries aren’t necessarily the authority on what’s bad.

The truth is that we all got you wrong back then. The film you were most like wasn’t Can’t Stop the Music, which reaped the Golden Raspberry harvest in 1981, but another from my first crop of HBO: Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. Mix All That Jazz and Grease with Disney and Busby Berkeley, and now we are here, Xanadu.

“Anathema,” some may say. “All That Jazz is a masterpiece!” No doubt. Even as an adolescent unable to fully process what Fosse had created, I watched All That Jazz again and again, whereas you barely held my attention the first time we met. As cinema, technically you were out of your depth.

And this just in: Olivia Newton-John can’t act. Not like Roy Scheider, anyway. On the other hand, Scheider can’t sing. That’s why he doesn’t try. He knows what he is, and he works his damnedest to be good at it. That’s like you, isn’t it? You’re a musical of a particular bent, and you worked very hard to be the best that you could be, didn’t you?

I get the impression that there’s a kitsch culture tied to you, Xanadu: the bad makeup and roller skates, the woefully dated ’80s fashion. But all that is beside the point. You’re really not much of a cult film. Sure, you’re campy in places, but you’re no Rocky Horror Picture Show. When we met the other night for the first time in all these years, amongst people who knew you so much better than I, I was thinking that you might be more enjoyable were you getting the MST3K treatment. But as you progressed, as it became clearer just how much more musical you are than film, how your connective tissue is merely meant to enmesh us in a world in which the magic of your production numbers makes a kind of sense, I felt commentary would be a distraction. You didn’t need any help in getting to your destination.

The path you took there was somewhat clever. Your music is, of course, great from the outset. When Kira becomes corporeal, “I’m Alive” comes a-blasting. When she skates, it’s “Magic”. Aurally the mood has been set. But as if top-tier, contemporary E.L.O. and O.N.J. material isn’t enough on its own, you start in with your plays on yesteryear. The metafiction of casting Gene Kelly is a nice touch, but at first it seems like it might be a gimmick, even if “Whenever You’re Away from Me” is a legitimate number.

But then you start to conflate past and present in a way I don’t think had been done before. At first it’s just cute when we see Sonny’s and Danny’s clashing visions of the eventual fruits of their new partnership, Sonny full of dreams of big bands and zoot-suited tap-dancers, while Danny fantasizes of spandex grinding and big-hair power-pop that would put Loverboy to shame. Then something funny happens on the way to the future: their visions merge, the musical motifs converging (separate takes on a unified set of motifs, actually, orchestrated from the outset to fulfill this ultimate destiny) until they literally intertwine, annihilating the space between. What It’s a truly vertiginous moment, the kind that tickles and awes.

Your writers deserve a lot of credit here, because this musical conflation of time directly serves the storyline (or vice versa. It’s hard to imagine just how you came to be, Xanadu). In the hands of your creative team, Xanadu comes to be a full-service and fully served metaphor of love, in all its timelessness and the possibility of its seeming to be made flesh in the object of our desire. So what that it’s a bit fuzzy? So what that it’s not what Coleridge had in mind? It’s a musical, dummy.

I’m not calling you dummy, Xanadu. You’re not dumb. Okay, so your humor can be canned. But once I took you for what you are, I was seduced by the charm of your bad jokes, your bad acting, your seemingly lesser qualities. (“I’m a muse,” Kira tells Danny insistently. “Well, I’m glad someone’s having a good time,” Danny rejoins. Kira doesn’t think it’s funny, but it kind of is.)

Along the way to your grand finale, after passing through production numbers that seem to have influenced the likes of Tron, The Little Mermaid, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, you continue to milk the timelessness angle (“Maybe just one moment,” Kira’s God-parents grant her with her flesh-and-blood love, “[o]r forever. I keep getting them mixed up, too”), which culminates in a multipart, unified, orgasmic phantasm of a club scene. A cast of hundreds—most on roller skates—is employed to crank up that conflation of past, present, and future to the Nth degree, gesturing and clapping to a frenzied drum corps like a massive, highly mobile cheer squad. A million lights are dancing, and there you are, a shooting star, the love that echoes of long ago, you’re here with me eternally.

The audience at our reunion was a little subdued during the first part of the film. But before long they were applauding heartily at the close of each of your production numbers, as is customary during any great musical. And when it was all over they gave you your due, Xanadu, clearly enamoured of the glory that you are.

I never would have guessed I would be one of them. It’s not that I’m an especially inflexible sort. I know my tastes have changed greatly over the last 35 years. I know how often one’s feelings on a subject may be ill founded. Yet despite my familiarity with such phenomena, my thoughts about you persisted in error. I imagined you as an artistic tchotchke, appealing only to the most generic sort of ’80s nostalgia.

I was wrong, Xanadu. I have wronged you. I have slandered you without knowing whereof I spoke. I have yet again committed the sin of confusing impression with truth, despite continual and concentrated efforts to flagellate myself from the state of such intellectual baseness. I am less of a sinner than I once was, but as you have made amply clear, my soul’s purging is far from complete.

I do not judge art the way I once did. I am more open-minded, more openhearted even. At the same time I am more, rather than less, discerning, more critical. These shifts combine to help me measure and appreciate artistic success not simply in light of my own tastes—which are only necessarily about me—but in regard to how well artmakers succeed in their attempts (as subjective as even that evaluation may be).

If I’m thinking about cinema in a technical sense, All That Jazz you ain’t. But if I’m thinking about the musical, the kind of musical that is all about a joyous journey propelled by great songs and production numbers, shall I compare thee to a summer’s day, Xanadu? Shall I compare thee to Sweeney Todd? Is Stephen Sondheim better than Jeff Lynne? Is John Coltrane better than The Clash? Is West Side Story better than South Park?

Silly comparisons, these. You are you, Xanadu, beautiful and fully fleshed out, a spectacle of spectacular proportions. Adjusted for inflation you cost just about as much to make as Chicago and Les Misérables (and it isn’t as if Michael Beck was taking slices of the pie as big as those consumed by the likes of Anne Hathaway and Richard Gere). You weren’t made on the cheap; it’s just that the investment of time, money, energy, and creativity can display itself onscreen in myriad ways.

That hundreds of people laid their good money down to come celebrate your 35th birthday with you shows me that, despite, being a box-office bomb and an industry joke, somehow you’ve survived. You’re aging gracefully despite all that spandex. Perhaps now, finally, people see you for what you are and not in light of their preconceptions, their expectations of what you were supposed to be.

I can say “they” because I am a convert, an initiate, one who was blind but now can see. In general I don’t like musicals much more than I did at 13. But you, Xanadu, make the short list. In your rough, awkward way, you are one of the greats. Thanks for sticking around long enough for me to see it.

With love and admiration,
-G-

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