Bask in the Beautiful, Essential Badness of Xanadu

The first time I watched Xanadu in service of this review, I was very drunk, and I assumed that was the reason for my inability to follow the thread of anything happening in the entire film. I watched it again sober, and I was dead wrong. There is no following the thread of Xanadu. Not in plot, not in theme, not in reality. It is incomprehensible, bizarre, unhinged, and manic. Every exotic screen wipe might as well be a bump of coke.

The entire script requires every actor to chew an immense amount of overly witty, snarky ribbing. It’s a template for scriptwriters who have never, ever had an actual conversation. Groucho Marx made a career of staring into the camera and quipping one-liners, but the actors of Xanadu do the same thing, only at each other, poorly, and without being in on the joke. “I don’t believe it!” is exclaimed more than once, and of the many examples I could pull from to display the badness of the writing, this is the only one that matters.

Did you know Gene Kelly was in Xanadu? He plays Danny Maguire. I thought it was a mistake on the title card, so I headed over to IMDB, and, yup, “Known for Singin’ in the Rain.” It’s a perfect bit of trivia, amazing, unbelievable, trivial. But it’s true. He provides one indelible throwback tap number with Olivia Newton-John, then spends the rest of the film staring off screen at his cues and directing some of the most horrific ensemble numbers you're likely to see.

So it goes without saying that Xanadu is hilarious, and fun, and admirable. It is an immortal, immense work of failure firing on all cylinders, hitting not on the zeitgeist it was designed to capture but creating one in an opposite reality. That it was the occasion for the first Razzie awards is a testament to its supreme and sublime badness.

But you’ve heard all that, and what’s more, it’s what you’re in the theater for this Friday. What you might know that I don’t is what Xanadu has that, say, the films of Ed Wood do not, though they both reside in the canon of the best worst films of all time. Why were Xanadu, Mommie Dearest, and Valley of the Dolls such queer cult classics? Perhaps the answer lies in their stars, and their stars’ particular badness.

Olivia Newton-John here is bad, yes. She's vacant, unconvincing in her lines, and her accent wavers. But she’s also a spark of sincerity and wide-eyed earnestness that provides a point of engagement (both emotional and cultural) for the proceedings. Xanadu wins you over because of its heart, and that is largely due to Newton-John.

So, if you’re reading this review, and I’ve perhaps given you an impression that Xanadu is not worth seeing, I’d like you to know that this is as far from the truth as Xanadu is from being good. Here is an abbreviated list of the many pleasures that await you in the theater:

  • Jeff Lynne and ELO’s soundtrack. It is actually, truly good, and not good bad.

  • THE ROLLERSKATING. This goes without saying, but I might as well throw it in there.

  • The BAD rollerskating. Sonny and Kira do not ever impress you here. They just kind of hang out, rolling around.

  • That, for reasons that defy comprehension, they find themselves on and off rollerskates without explanation.

  • I haven't mentioned Sonny much in this review (played by Michael Beck), and that's because he's just a huge, doofus douchebag, constantly upending the vibe. Go away Sonny.

  • That the most important question you will find yourself asking is, “Why are they not always on rollerskates?” Glengarry Glen Ross taught us to always be closing, and Xanadu taught us that we should always be rollerskating.

  • That the film gets all of the essential truths of the eras it displays (the 40s, the 70s, the 80s, the future), completely, totally wrong.

  • That part of the film is an animated cartoon, where Sonny and Kira turn into off-license Disney animals and metaphorically fuck next to a rose. (Also, that this animation was provided by An American Tale’s Don Bluth, just one of the many talented people roped into this production through misguidance or contractual obligation).

  • That the club Gene Kelly and Sonny team up to bring you looks like an Alvin’s Island outlet.

  • The many screen wipes and treatments. If there’s a community college for studying screen wipes and treatments, Xanadu is a foundational text.

  • The extended ONJ concert that provides the climax of the film, one where she ISN’T ON SKATES. It goes on for a four-song medley, with numerous set changes, and not once does she ever glide and swing her arms around. Imagine if Bring it On ended with a debate team competition.

Please, treat yourself to the badness of Xanadu, this Friday night at the Plaza Theater. Buy your tickets on the Scoutmob website, strap on your rollerskates, and get ready. Let it wash over you like a neon body halo. And afterwards, bring your camp high on over to Mary’s for our “Xanadudes” party, with drink specials and a photobooth.

Christopher Kaluzienski is assistant editor at WUSSY in Atlanta, Georgia. He’s been told he should be more interested in humans.