Following the Oscar season, there is no shortage of hype surrounding winners of those coveted golden statuettes handed out each year by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. If the Hollywood marketing hype is to be believed, a film’s worth is to be measured by the number of accolades it has received. The Academy Awards is considered by the general public to be the most prestigious of the lot, hence the Oscars ceremony has less to do with recognising the best in the world of cinema, more to do with engineering public perception. Granted, it might not have always been this way, but given some rather curious choices in recent years, it’s difficult to not feel cynical toward the Academy itself.
The bastard cousin of the Oscars, the notorious Razzie Awards, has played its own role in manipulating public perception, in that it dishonours the so-called worst in cinema for the year. Whereas members of the Academy have become known for collectively making safe, non-controversial decisions when awarding the Oscars, so too has the Razzies become known for making similarly safe, non-controversial choices when acknowledging the worst in cinema. After all, the nominees for the Razzies tend to be films already eviscerated by know-it-all critics. These are films that have long since vacated theatres and have been banished to ex-rental oblivion in video stores across the world. As if these films haven’t suffered enough ignominy – and admittedly the dishonour is not always entirely undeserved – the good folks behind the Razzies see fit to label these supposed turkeys with the kiss of death for all posterity, the dreaded Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Picture.
The funny thing about awards is that, much like film reviews in the popular press and box office figures, they actually have little influence over public perception of a film in the long run. In other words, the true test of a film is not how many Oscars it collects, nor is it how many Razzies it can avoid, and it certainly isn’t how much money it can take at the box office. The true test of a film is the test of time. Looking at cinema from this perspective, Xanadu (1980), a film that was savaged by critics, tanked at the box office, and was nominated for Worst Picture at the inaugural Razzie Awards in 1980, stands as one of the greatest films in existence.
Yes, you read that correctly: Xanadu stands as one of the greatest films in existence – at least of all the films I’ve seen, anyway. [Ed’s note: I can confirm Mark’s wide and ranging knowledge of cinema!] If the true measure of a film is the sheer joy audiences derive experiencing it many years after release, then I shall continue to defend Xanadu in the face of its most relentless (killjoy) critics.
Xanadu has outlived the negative reviews, the disappointing box office returns, not to mention the mocking nature of the Razzie Awards, to become something of a cult favourite over the last thirty years. Apart from inspiring a number of Broadway musical parodies in recent times, Xanadu still plays regularly at special theatrical revivals around the world. The Canberra International Film festival included Xanadu in its 2011 programme, as an outdoor sunset presentation. It played to capacity audience (this writer should know – I was in the front row); November 2012 saw Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art present two screenings as part of its retrospective of dance musical films (again, this writer was on hand to experience the magic on the big screen); and now it is your turn to view this infamous motion picture musical and form your own opinions about its merit (or lack thereof) as Xanadu roller skates its way to the Astor.
Honestly, if you consider yourself to be an ardent cinephile, or you simply enjoy your kitsch in extra large doses, you really should make it along to this rare cinematic event, the first Melbourne theatrical presentation of Xanadu in many, many years. Even if you have never experienced the film, you’re probably familiar with its title number, performed by Olivia Newton-John and the Electric Light Orchestra. In fact, the soundtrack was incredibly popular back in its day, even if the film fell short of meeting commercial expectations in theatres – even today it’s not uncommon to hear selected music from the film on nostalgia and easy listening radio stations.
The film is pure escapist indulgence, a roller disco fantasy that is essentially a long form music video. The screenplay is to dramatic impact as cotton candy is to nutrition. Olivia Newton-John and Michael Beck will never be regarded as one of the great romantic pairings in cinema though. The main thing that matters in Xanadu is the music, and there is no shortage of remarkable songs to be found in this fantastic cinematic realm where dreams come true. For those of you who are curious as to the premise of the film, it concerns a dissatisfied illustrator, Sonny Malone (Michael Beck), who specialises in reproducing album cover art at AirFlo Records. Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly, in his silver screen swan song) is an erstwhile Big Band musician whose heyday was sometime back in the 1940s. Inspired by a celestial being named Kira (Olivia Newton-John), and determined to realise a common dream, Sonny and Danny plan to open a musical palace that shall combine the Big Band music of the 1940s with the rock and disco stylings from (what was then) the present time. Of course, there is more to Xanadu than just its music, as this glorious exercise in psychedelia boasts some of the most fabulous costumes you will ever see – words can’t do the wardrobe for this film justice, you simply must behold the dazzling sartorial creations yourself! The film combines aural and visual pleasure in ways matched by very few other films this writer has ever experienced.
Pleasure is something far too often overlooked by po-faced film critics when judging films like Xanadu. Films can do many things; they can educate us, inspire feelings of introspection, radicalise us politically, exist as great works of artistry, but sometimes we
indulge ourselves in a certain slice of cinema for the sheer joy of it all. Films that appeal to your own eccentric tastes on celluloid might not tickle the fancy of most published film critics you read, and it’s hard to imagine your garden variety movie reviewer dressed up in tights and leg warmers, dancing to classic melodies from the days of disco! For example, I could never imagine American movie critic Gene Shalit, who absolutely panned Xanadu, as the type of person who would sing into his hairbrush as the film’s soundtrack played on the radio (but that’s also because I could never imagine Gene Shalit owning a hairbrush.)
Basically, it takes a special type of film reviewer to give Xanadu a fair shake – preferably one whose own life revolves around dancing, leg warmers and spandex – someone who actually gets the charm of the movie. As far as I’m aware, there isn’t a film critic more qualified than California-based dance instructor Ken Anderson, author of Le Cinema Dreams film review site, for whom the film (quite literally) altered the course of his life. To visit Ken Anderson’s blissfully entertaining, rather hilarious, albeit highly informative review, please click this link here. Hopefully, you will be inspired to catch Xanadu, the first half of a musical fantasy double feature that also includes The Wiz (1978), on Saturday April 12th at 7.30pm at Melbourne’s own stately pleasuredome where dreams come true, the Astor Theatre.
Written by Mark Vanselow for The Astor Theatre.