Our public discourses on art rarely match our private pleasures; what's inexcusable to Ebert is ecstasy for the rest of us. Which would you really rather stumble across on a lazy Sunday afternoon with your cable remote—Citizen Kane or St. Elmo's Fire? Liar. It's with this aesthetic that we can approach Xanadu, playing midnights this weekend at the Egyptian. The film was a flop in 1980, but can now be appreciated for the landmark work it was.
Olivia Newton-John is cast as Terpsichore, the Greek Muse of dancing, who comes down to Venice Beach in leg warmers to recite Samuel Taylor Coleridge and inspire a down-on-his-luck painter (stone-faced Michael Beck) to open a roller disco. I mean, we could just stop right here and call it genius, as far as I'm concerned.
But the film continues its artistic risk taking, the biggest being that Olivia Newton-John can't dance. Sure, you can make a dance pop musical in which the lead player can't act, but a dance pop musical featuring a lead player who can't dance? That takes courage. The brave artisans behind this epic let you know how they're going to handle it right from the opening number, a brilliant scene in which Olivia and her sister Muses emerge from a painting on a brick wall to the elated strains of the Electric Light Orchestra's "I'm Alive." While the sisters are celebrating their reanimation ࠬa Solid Gold, Olivia, in the film's most electric moment, stands there and gazes in wonder at her newborn fingers.
The innovations don't end. At one point, Beck and Olivia are roller-skating on an empty movie set and morph into cartoon fish. Cartoon fish! Olivia's fish flirts coyly with Beck's fish, whose tongue hangs out of its mouth in goggle-eyed anticipation of aquatic rutting. Can you even imagine the creative minds that sat around a table at Universal and discussed the merits of turning Olivia Newton-John into a cartoon fish?
This is nothing, finally, compared to what the movie did to Gene Kelly, who plays a saxophonist from the '40s who thinks it would be really cool to open a roller disco. Here's Gene Kelly wearing, like, a fuchsia zoot suit while a guy dressed as a punk spider crawls through the legs of people with green mohawks; poor old Gene looks like he might pee his pants. Here's Gene Kelly, arguably one of the two or three greatest artists in the history of musical film, appearing in a movie that has him in roller skates repeatedly chanting "Ho!" by way of summoning a climactic number from Olivia Newton-John and E.L.O. This is jaw-dropping audacity—it's like putting Meryl Streep on Touched by an Angel and telling her to make room for Roma Downey's big scene. Kelly hadn't been this humiliated since, well, three years previous, when he played Evel Knievel's alcoholic mechanic in the motorcyclist's 1977 movie debut Viva Knievel!, in which Evel's presence causes a crippled young orphan to cast aside his crutches and exclaim, "Look, Evel! I can walk!"
But one masterpiece at a time, folks.