This year, the Electric Light Orchestra finally got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a well-deserved capstone on many years of great music. (The induction ceremony, which took place April 7, will be broadcast for the first time on HBO on Saturday, April 29.) In the estimation of the famously grumpy Jeff Lynne, that great music does not include ELO’s involvement in the 1980 movie Xanadu, the disco-era movie musical starring Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly. In one of his few public comments on the film, Lynne complained to Rolling Stone, “I wrote half the songs, though I’ve never seen the thing. I don’t suppose anybody else has, either. It was supposed to be really bad. I don’t think I’ll ever see the movie after reading the reviews.”
Lynne’s comments certainly aren’t surprising. Xanadu has endured this kind of disdain for decades. In fact, it was the film that famously inspired the formation of the Razzies, the anti-Oscars that ridicule the worst movies of the year.
Yet Xanadu is a fascinating artifact to look back on today, a bright, colorful musical that came out during a major transitional period in pop culture. Released a year after the collapse of disco, the film was clearly in the wrong place at the wrong time. But fans of Xanadu, who have been often been dubbed “Xanadudes,” “Xanadames” and “Museheads,” have only continued to grow in the nearly 40 years since the film was released. Whatever Xanadu’s flaws — and it is indeed a messy hodgepodge — you almost can’t call it a guilty pleasure anymore because so many fans have openly enjoyed it.
Xanadu was actually one of several roller disco films that were in development at the end of the 1970s. With the incredible box office success of Saturday Night Fever, and its soundtrack becoming the biggest selling album of all time, disco movies were, briefly, hot commodities.
Initially Xanadu was going to be a low-budget project. But once Olivia Newton-John, who was white-hot from Grease, came aboard, followed by legendary actor-dancer Gene Kelly, it quickly turned into something much bigger. (In fact, the budget for Xanadu eventually climbed to $20 million, a huge number for the time.)
See also: Our slideshow of Xanadu film locations
In the film, Newton-John plays Kira, a muse who comes to Earth and falls in love with a mortal named Sonny, a frustrated artist played by Michael Beck (The Warriors) — an affair forbidden by the gods. While this romantic conflict plays out, Sonny befriends Kelly's character, Danny, a washed-up musician plotting to open a hot new dance club called Xanadu. If that plot seems threadbare, that's because Xanadu was green-lit with a 40-page script.
“When I got the 40 pages, I thought, well, this is strange,” the film's director, Robert Greenwald, tells L.A. Weekly. “Maybe there’s a plan here that I’m not aware of. Maybe there’s another version of the script someplace; for sure the script will be improved. Unfortunately that never happened.”
Greenwald was a television director, and he’s still not exactly sure why he was picked to helm the film. But he also loved musicals — his uncle was Broadway choreographer Michael Kidd — so when he had the opportunity to make one himself, he jumped at the chance.
Xanadu would turn out to be an anomaly in Greenwald’s career. He’s helmed many serious documentaries, including Outfoxed, as well as the acclaimed domestic-violence TV movie The Burning Bed, which starred Farrah Fawcett. But as Greenwald told the L.A. Times in 2002, he made Xanadu at “a time in my own life when retreating into a fantasy world was a highly desirable and necessary thing for me.”
When ELO got involved in Xanadu, they were at their commercial peak with 1979’s Discovery album, which featured the hit “Don’t Bring Me Down.” As recounted in the documentary Going Back to Xanadu, it was producer Joel Silver, who would go on to produce Die Hard and The Matrix, who got ELO to agree to do the film.
Despite his other comments on Xanadu, Lynne did tell Rolling Stone, “I’m really pleased with the music.” He got involved in the film, he said in the same interview, because he wanted to work with Newton-John. “I took it because I thought, well, I like Olivia. … She’s great. It would be nice to meet her.” (In recent years, Lynne has also performed the title track in concert.)
ELO weren't the only contributors to the Xanadu soundtrack. Newton-John also brought in songwriter John Farrar, who had previously written the smash “You’re the One That I Want” for Grease. He contributed “Magic” to the Xanadu soundtrack, sung by Newton-John, which was a No. 1 hit for a straight month. The film's then-unknown choreographer, Kenny Ortega (who would go on to work with Madonna and Michael Jackson), recommended a band he knew called The Tubes, who provided some quirky, new wave flavor to the proceedings. (In one segment, there are even dancers with brightly colored punk and new wave hair.)
Xanadu is also an L.A.-centric story, mostly filmed on location in various parts of the city — notably in Venice, where the area’s local color and eccentricities provided further inspiration for the film. “I lived in Venice,” Greenwald says, “and it’s a very strong community with the beach, the buildings, the people and the clothes.”
Greenwald wasn’t thinking about the changes in popular culture when making Xanadu, or whether the studio was fretting behind the scenes. But there must have been some concerns at Universal once the clock hit 1980. Disco had died an ugly death the previous summer, culminating in the infamous Disco Demolition Night at Chicago's Comiskey Park, and the music business was still struggling to recover from the genre’s crash. Suddenly, a movie that seemed like a sure box office bet when it was green-lit in the late ’70s was now looking like a potential target for the disco backlash. When Can’t Stop the Music, which starred The Village People, came out with a resounding thud on June 20, 1980, it didn't bode well for the summer's other big disco movie musical.
Xanadu was slated for an Aug. 8, 1980, release (8.8.80). Back then August was considered a weak box office month, usually reserved for the studios' dregs, and 1980 was no exception; Xanadu's competition was Raise the Titanic, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (the ignominious end to the great Peter Sellers' career) and Smokey and the Bandit II. Even so, Universal low-balled Xanadu, opening it in only 200 theaters, where it did middling business and was hammered by the critics. Esquire famously quipped “Xana-don’t!” and it was nominated for worst picture in the first annual Razzie Awards. (It lost to Can’t Stop the Music.)
While the film didn’t score at the theaters or with critics, the Xanadu soundtrack was a double-platinum smash, peaking at No. 4 on the charts. The title track, which hit No. 8 in the States, was also a No. 1 hit in Europe, and the soundtrack yielded three more top-20 hits, including two ELO numbers, “All Over the World” and “I’m Alive.”
During one talk show interview with Newton-John at the time, the host tried to torture her by reading aloud the reviews for Xanadu. The singer kept her cool, citing a famous Hollywood quote: “We made the film for the public, not the critics, otherwise we’d be in terrible trouble.” Indeed, whatever barbs the critics continue to hurl at the film to this day, the court of public opinion has weighed in otherwise.
Greenwald is pleased that he’s been hearing from Xanadu fans for decades, and he loves surprising them with the rest of his filmography. “The fun is when people say, ‘Wait, you did Xanadu? You did The Burning Bed? You did Outfoxed?’ That’s a pleasurable kind of confusion to create and explain to people. I’ve always loved doing things that are different.”
And for one mega-fan of the film, Xanadu showed him the promise of a brave new world at the dawn of the decade. Ken Anderson was inspired by Xanadu to chase his dream of being a dance instructor. As he told the L.A. Times in a 2002 article about him and his fellow Museheads, “I remember there was this feeling that the ’80s were going to be very different from the ’70s, and the movie had the feeling that there were going to be all these different races and generations and music mixing together. … Now it seems very naive, but there really was something euphoric about it.”