*A Place Where Nobody Should Have Dared Go

Nothing could have surprised me less than to read that Xanadu the stage musical had made its flamboyant way to Melbourne, and will then be strutting the stages of Sydney and Brisbane for many months. I’m all for a big gay night out, so had been entirely set to think that this state of affairs was just fine. Then, however, I learned that the show had been constructed with its tongue stuck right in its cheek. I wanted to hurl the newspaper down in disgust upon reading that, in the words of Xanadu’s director, Christopher Ashley, its tone ‘is absolutely committed ridiculousness’, not to mention its disrespectful male lead opining that the movie is ‘horrible’ and that ‘the musical is everything the movie should have been. The movie is like this but serious.’

Now, I know that I am not alone in loving Xanadu the film and, as well, I have believed for a long time that it is not given the credit it is due for its ambitious reference points. Karl Quinn notes in the Age piece referenced above that the movie ‘had nothing to do with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, “Kubla Khan”, and everything to do with the youth-of-the-day’s insatiable appetite for disco music, roller skating and Olivia Newton-John’. Well, that is true only up to a point. Who could forget the scene in which Newton-John and Gene Kelly, while at the future site of the Xanadu nightclub, recite lines from this very poem? Then, too, you have to respect and admire Xanadu’s creators for having the mad idea in the first place of, in contrast to the pedestrian ghetto of many early eighties musicals, doing one that is based upon ancient Greek mythology.

The nuttiness of the central idea – that a commercial artist, Sonny Malone (Michael Beck), who refuses to bow down to The Man, meets a muse, Kira (Olivia Newton-John) who assists him in opening, with fellow visionary Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly), a roller disco – to my mind actually makes Xanadu less ridiculous than the more naturalistic Footloose or Flashdance (both of which have been made into stage musicals too, natch, and now there is to be a movie version of the Footloose stage musical, for the love of Christ), or Can’t Stop the Music, which is, aside from being stupid, also, against all conceivable odds, sort of boring. Xanadu, on the other hand, certainly led me as an eleven year old to want to get my paws on a Scholastic Book Club title or two on the subject of Zeus and his kind, and these were, at least, arguably an advance on, say, the novelisation of The Poseidon Adventure, which was the kind of thing I was normally reading in preference to troubling myself with my homework.

The bottom line, though, is that I simply can’t deal with a facetious approach to something that when being done in total earnestness is a million times funnier than when it’s done with all the winking and nodding. It’s one reason why I’ve never been able to engage with Desperate Housewives – its overlords are just not taking the soap opera concept seriously enough for my liking. If you’re going to make a soap opera, make a soap opera. Geez, I enjoyed the Eva Braun’s necklace storyline in Chances as much as the next person, but for hilarity it still doesn’t come close to virtually any scene in deadly serious nineteen eighties British would-be glamour soap Howards’ Way. (And what about that apostrophe in the title? As the program is about a family called Howard, shouldn’t it be called either Howard’s Way or The Howards’ Way?) For mirth, nothing can beat a Howards’ Way scene of spectacularly unattractive young people in jumpers lethargically partying, climaxing in some ‘body popping’; or fashion designer Claude Dupont’s philosophising about love in the most ludicrous French accent of all time; or a high-powered board meeting taking place in what looks like a canteen.

The thing with the film of Xanadu is that it delivers its earnest and, frankly, valid, message about not wasting your talents on things that don’t matter to you with the kind of charm that could only have been provided at that point in time and only by the particular stars who were willing to appear in the film. What are the people behind the stage show, with all their feelings of superiority, really going to come up with that will equal Gene Kelly roller skating through lines of people who are dressed up as Marcel Marceau and juggling, to the chant of ‘Xanadu’ and accompanying handclaps? Or Kelly’s mad shopping spree to the tune of ELO’s ‘Party All Over the World’, in which he’s shadowed by wild and crazy looking ‘punks’? And then you have Olivia Newton-John; rarely has anyone been so charismatic on film while also having an air of incompetence. Is the stage show really going to offer up anything as good as Sonny (Michael Beck) addressing Zeus while attired in a loud shirt and tiny red shorts and shod in roller skates? (Incidentally, Beck has a lot more strings to his bow than Xanadu gives him the opportunity to demonstrate – in 1984’s Celebrity he burns up the television screen as cult leader TJ Luther.) What’s more, the stage show certainly can’t deliver the rocking fun of a split screen.

Whenever I’m watching the film’s elaborately choreographed fantasy sequence about Sonny and Danny’s conflicting views on the entertainment that Xanadu will offer, in which the nineteen forties go head to head with the eighties, as personified by ‘new wave’ band the Tubes, I always, quite simply, feel glad to be alive. Yes, this is partly due to the comical gyrations of the Tubes’ many keyboard players but is largely due to the infectious way that so much energy is being applied so sincerely to this dance-off clash of the eras, not to mention the punchy tunes that eventually meet in a glorious whole, despite the rapist-like sentiments that are to the fore in the lyrics of the Tubes’ contribution. Furthermore, it is touching to hear all that Truman-Capote-at-Studio-54 seventies jadedness momentarily thrown out the window when Sonny declares ‘This is the eighties!’, with such confidence about the possibilities of the decade, even though it would barely even have been the eighties at that point.

And this brings me to something that irks me in articles that aim to explain the success of fellow eighties-ploitation stage shows such as Rock of Ages (also shortly to land in Melbourne) and that always include some individual going on about what an optimistic time the decade was. As noted above, Sonny Malone was issuing his rallying cry in 1980 – I have no memory of a feeling of optimism in the nineteen eighties proper. Yes, there was fun but it was hard-edged Duran Duran-style-I’m-going-to-get-engaged-over-again-to-different-models-and-snort-blow sort of fun; that is, Studio 54 jadedness all over again. If you weren’t lucky enough to be coking it up, the eighties was all about extensive airplay of the Jam’s ‘A Town Called Malice’; the AIDS television commercial featuring the Grim Reaper bowling; magazine articles referencing George Orwell’s 1984; and Baby Boomers telling off university students for being too much like Alex P Keaton and, therefore, insufficiently like annoying collective the Diggers participating in a Death of Money Parade in Haight-Ashbury.

And those of us who lived through the era would have been even less optimistic if we’d understood that the eighties were never going to be allowed to get a moment’s slumber. If I’d realised I was still going regularly to be encountering Goanna’s soul-destroyingly horrible ‘Solid Rock’ a decade into the twenty-first century, I would immediately have removed my eardrums and fed them to a nearby dog.

Leave a Reply