Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Greater Pop Culture Context of Xanadu

I truly love Xanadu. I don’t ironically love it. I don’t love it because I laugh at it. I don’t even love it for its camp value. I love Xanadu because there’s something earnest in it.

I also maybe love it because the first time I saw it I had taken codeine cough syrup — for medical reasons, I should point out, but thank you nonetheless, UCSB student health services! And although every subsequent viewing has been comparatively less twinkly, even the most sober viewing makes me think of that first time, in all its hazy, grape-flavored glory.

Codeine or no codeine, I’ve seen the movie many times, but it wasn’t until I had to write about it for People that I realized it’s not just a weirdo roller-disco fantasy existing out its own, as a vestige of the ’70s that somehow squeaked into the ’80s. It’s a movie that has a lot of connections to classic movie musicals, and I felt like other pop culture nerds who love Xanadu would be interested to know how it fits in.

(BTW, the majority of all this information is in the People piece as well, but I felt that it was all weird and surprising enough that I merited posting twice.)

Foremost, while it’s not a remake of the 1947 musical Down to Earth, exactly, it’s heavily inspired by it. Down to Earth has Rita Hayworth playing Terpischore, the muse of dance, who descends to the world of mortals, falls in love with a Broadway producer and helps make his new musical a success. (Xanadu, meanwhile, has Olivia Newton-John playing Terpischore, arriving on Earth to inspire the guy from The Warriors to start a roller-disco, and I guess that was the early 1980s equivalent of putting on a popular stage musical?)

Down to Earth is kinda-sorta a sequel to the 1941 film Here Comes Mr. Jordan.

Down to Earth isn’t a continuation of the story, but it does feature three characters from Here Comes Mr. Jordan, two of them being played by the same actors from the first film. Here Comes Mr. Jordan also features a plot about otherworldly beings meddling in the lives of mortals, but in this case, it’s angels.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan was based on Harry Segall’s play Heaven Can Wait, which was later remade as the 1978 film Heaven Can Wait, starring Warren Beatty.

The play was adapted into a movie a second time in 2001 with Chris Rock, though confusingly it used the title of the semi-sequel, Down to Earth.

Outside of that chain, it gets more complicated. Xanadu stars Gene Kelly in his final role as Danny Maguire, a former band leader who has lost his muse. In the 1944 movie Cover Girl, Kelly plays a character by the same name, who works in a nightclub — you know, like an aspiring bandleader might. Also, the film has Kelly romancing Rita Hayworth, who would go on to play the muse in Down to Earth.

It’s just a coincidence, but it’s a happy one, in that it allows both Xanadu and Cover Girl to project onto each other a little, and make the former seem like another spiritual successor to the latter. When Kelly’s character dances with Kira, you can imagine that he’s thinking of Rita Hayworth, and in a way, Kira is that character.

Furthermore, the big Xanadu scene that Kelly shares with Newton-John has them dancing together in a way that’s remarkably similar to how Kelly danced with Judy Garland in the 1942 film For Me and My Gal. Check the two sequences out, back-to-back.

Kelly himself choreographed the scene, and to me, it makes Xanadu a more of a reflection on his long show business career than I realized before. And that’s sweet, in a way, because that makes me feel less bad about Kelly’s final film being labeled a commercial flop, even if it was a flop that eventually found a cult following of codeine-addled weirdos.

And there’s one more: The dance sequence for “Don’t Walk Away” transforms into a cartoon. This animation was one of the first projects done by Don Bluth, who had only recently left Disney at the time when Xanadu came along.

From here on, Bluth went on to do The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail and The Land Before Time. You could make the argument that Xanadu therefore provided a first stepping stone for Bluth on the road to becoming a successful animator independent of Disney. You could even make a Xanadu-Arrested Development connection, since the latter’s Bluth family got its name from Don Bluth, but they wouldn’t have had Bluth not become a famous, recognized name. Xanadu helped make that happen. Thanks, roller-disco movie!

In the end, of course, Xanadu became a Broadway hit that received all the praise that Xanadu the movie didn’t get. (Below, you can watch the stage version of Xanadu in its entirety, if that’s something you feel like doing on a Saturday.)

And that’s cool, but to me not quite as cool as the fact that it’s a Broadway musical adaptation of a roller-disco classic that was a remake of a sequel to a film that had already been adapted into a movie and which had been a Broadway play in the first place.

Dem muses, I tell you.

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