History’s Greatest Roller Skating Disco Musical Turns 35
Roller skating. Greek mythology. Hollywood. Olivia Newton-John. Gene Kelly. Electric Light Orchestra. By some measures, Xanadu should have been a hit.
It wasn’t, however. Upon its release in theaters on Aug. 8, 1980 – 35 years ago this week – the disco musical Xanadu was met with negative reviews and middling box office returns. That didn’t stop it, however, and this hypercolor fantasy has persisted, becoming a cult favorite in spite of its inauspicious beginnings.
In honor of the fact that Xanadu has endured and overcome its rough start, we’re celebrating the film’s 35th anniversary with behind-the-scenes stories that fans may not know.
1. It could have co-starred Mel Gibson.
Newton-John was the producers’ first choice to play the female lead, Kira. Once she landed the part, she had someone in mind to play her love interest: “an unknown Australian named Mel Gibson,” according to Entertainment Weekly. In the end, however, the role went to actor Michael Beck, who’d previously starred in The Warriors.
2. It’s kinda-sorta a remake.
The 1947 film Down to Earth features Rita Hayworth as a muse who descends to the realm of humans and falls for a Broadway producer. That’s not exactly the plot of Xanadu, but doesn’t it sound like a ’40s version of the same basic story that Xanadu tells? It should: the latter is a loose remake of the former.
3. But it’s actually more complicated than that.
Down to Earth was a follow-up to 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which also dealt with otherworldly beings getting involved with the lives of mortals. (Two actors from Mr. Jordan reprise their roles in Down to Earth.) This original film has been remade twice – once as 1978’s Heaven Can Wait, starring Warren Beatty, and again in 2001 as Down to Earth, starring Chris Rock. All of the films are adaptations of the play Heaven Can Wait. So that means that Xanaduis a remake of a sequel to a movie adaptation of a play.
Xanadu stars Gene Kelly as Danny McGuire, a former big band leader who lost his muse ages ago. In the 1944 musical Cover Girl, Kelly played a character who works in a nightclub and happens to have the name Danny McGuire. If that weren’t connection enough already, Cover Girl has Kelly romancing Rita Hayworth, who played the muse in Down to Earth that serves as the inspiration for Newton-John’s character in Xanadu.
Given that Xanadu wasn’t warmly received, it’s a bit of bummer that it ended up being Kelly’s last turn in a feature film. (He appeared in two TV roles before dying in 1996.) Kelly himself was aware that the film hadn’t lived up to expectations. The book The Films of Gene Kelly, Song and Dance Man has Kelly summing up the experience with one decisive sentence: “The concept was marvelous, but it just didn’t come off.”
In a 2012 interview with The Daily Herald, Newton-John said she understood what an honor it was to work with Kelly in his final film regardless. “He was lovely,” she said. “I still can’t believe I danced with Gene Kelly. How lucky am I that I’ve been in movies where I’ve danced with two of the greatest dancers of all time – with Gene Kelly and John Travolta? I never would have thought that because I had two left feet growing up.”
6. And in Kelly’s big scene there’s yet another movie connection…
Kelly himself choreographed his dance number with Newton-John, and the dance moves they perform are extremely similar to ones he’d performed when he danced with Judy Garland in the 1942 film For Me and My Gal. So in many ways, Xanadu is as much about Kelly’s own storied musical career as it is about roller skating and neon. Who knew?
7. Newton-John broke her coccyx while filming the number for “Suddenly.”
Ouch. Just ouch. But hey – she soldiered through anyway.
8. She wasn’t just playing any muse.
Though she’s hushed from speaking her true name out loud, Kira tries to tell Beck’s character that she’s actually “Terpsichore.” In Greek mythology, Terpsichore (literally “delight in dancing”) was the muse of dance and chorus. And sure – “Kira” seems like as sensible a nickname for “Terpsichore” as anything, right? It beats “Terps.”
9. Xanadu brought about at least one wedding.
Newton-John met her first husband – actor Matt Lattanzi, who played the young version of Kelly’s character in the film – while on set. They were married from 1984 to 1995.
10. It also helped jump-start the solo career of animator Don Bluth.
At one point in the film, a musical number transforms into a cartoon sequence. The animation was done by Don Bluth, who had recently departed from Disney. Following Xanadu, Bluth’s production company made its first feature-length animated movie, The Secret of NIMH. Bluth later directed An American Tale and The Land Before Time as well.