Friday, May 31, 2013

Famous Flops: Xanadu

Welcome to the latest edition of Famous Flops, in which I watch one movie per month that was considered a massive failure either critically or commercially.

Sites like Rotten Tomatoes are interesting because their metric to examine the quality of movies is open-ended. By that I mean, the freshness rating of an old movie is never closed. A critic -- one who has met the site's eligibility requirements -- can declare a movie rotten or fresh whenever they want, even if the movie came out 50 years ago. Filmspotting host Josh Larsen created a stir recently when he sullied the previously unblemished record of 12 Angry Men by submitting the one negative review of it. We'll leave the discussion of whether this makes Larsen admirably brave or utterly foolish for another time.

What we can discuss now is whether this is a bit of a cheat. I think it is. On some level, it seems only fair that the published critical consensus about a film is what critics thought about it at the time it was released. Now, there are certainly occasions where a film has grown in esteem over the years, so if you were to judge only the initial reaction critics had (wasn't it Roger Ebert who didn't like Alien?), you would not be getting the full picture. However, in a case like the one above, the opposite may be true. Larsen seems to be judging 12 Angry Men by 2013 standards (in fact, I think he saw it and made his fateful judgment in 2012). Does Larsen really believe that he would have judged this (apparently not indisputably) great film so negatively in 1957?

Enter (finally) Xanadu, the Olivia Newton John bomb from 1980. The film that was meant to confirm and build upon the star's Grease popularity, but instead likely short-circuited her acting career.

However, I'm looking at it through 2013 eyes, and as a result, I'm a lot more forgiving. (Which I guess makes the Ebert/Alien example more germane in this situation.)

I know, watching Xanadu today, that it's a failure on many levels. But I'm also a person who has grown up in an era of movie fans who fully appreciate camp, and how can I not see Xanadu as glorious camp? If I'm judging a movie on the standard of how disagreeable it was to watch, I have to say that I liked Xanadu.

The story concerns a young artist named Sonny (Michael Beck) who has a fairly unique job, as movie jobs go -- he paints larger versions of album covers so that they can be displayed promotionally. In a fit of frustration over one particular painting, Sonny tears it into pieces and scatters those pieces into the wind. The pieces float until they find a mural outside an old disco club? roller rink? who knows. (Wikipedia describes it as an "art deco auditorium.") The mural contains a half-dozen beautiful women in all their late 1970s disco/sci-fi/album cover glory, and the shreds of painting bring them to life. One in particular, named Kira (Olivia Newton-John), is bequeathed a pair of roller skates, and "bumps into" Sonny along a Santa Monica bike path. When the artist sees his muse appear on an album cover he's supposed to paint later that day -- even though she wasn't a paid actress on the shoot -- he starts to wonder what the meaning of it all is. The long and the short of it is, she's there to assist in the meeting between Sonny and Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly), a former orchestra leader who lost his own muse years before. The two are destined to open the "art deco auditorium" as a new club called Xanadu. Oh, and did we mention that Kira is a literal Olympian muse, from Mount Olympus?

If you are a bit lost/confused, don't worry about it. The movie is incredibly simple to follow, and actually requires a handful of song-and-dance numbers to make it to feature length.

It's probably obvious that this is the stuff of a great cult hit, which is how I suspect we would describe Xanadu nowadays. It's certainly oddball enough, most notably with the appearance of Hollywood legend Gene Kelly. At the tail end of his career, Kelly is a bit fragile here -- but he's also a lot lighter on his feet than you would expect, and has a ton of contagious gusto for the material. His first dance number starts out modestly, as though keenly aware of his limitations, before picking up steam and demonstrating that Kelly has still "got it." It may just be that Kelly's million dollar smile added at least a half point of a star rating for me on its own.

Newton-John is pretty sweet here, too. She has a couple fabbo musical numbers, in additional to ethereally roller skating in and out of Sonny's world. It's plenty charming. Beck as Sonny is pretty bland, but two out of three ain't bad.

Of course, this must have all seemed like a train wreck in 1980. When none of the aesthetic stylings of a movie are the source of nostalgia or the epitome of kitsch, your only choice is to face them on their own terms, and that must have been tricky for audiences at the time. It was especially tricky for critics -- that we know for sure.

But watching it 33 years later, I can't help but be charmed by one of the climactic numbers, which involves an army of clubgoers on roller skates (led by Kelly) clapping in sync and chanting the movie's name.

So, I guess I'm glad I saw it now instead of then.

Okay, on to next month. After hating each of the first three movies I've seen in this series less than I thought I would (and actually liking at least one), I've stacked the deck for epic hatred in June. I'm watching -- yes, I'm really going to do it -- the Paris Hilton vehicle The Hottie and the Nottie. It's supposed to be just awful, and I'm really, really hoping it is.

No comments: