Welcome to the JOE-DOWN, a back-and-forth movie review blog by two snarky newspapermen named Joe from Minnesota, Joe Froemming and Joe Brown. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, Brown picked “Xanadu.”
The Movie: “Xanadu”
Starring: Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly, Michael Beck
Director: Robert Greenwald
Plot Summary: (From IMDB) A struggling artist living in Los Angeles meets a girl who may hold the key to his happiness.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 29 percent
Brown: For over five years now, the JOE-DOWN has watched plenty of awfulness.
I mean hell, we watched a man in a magical cardigan kill a four-armed monster from the Outerworld last week with “Mortal Kombat.”
Now, it’s about time that we watch a bit of film so universally panned that it inspired the Razzies.
Yeah… that checks out.
According to lore, the Razzies were created after a double feature of “Xanadu” and “Can’t Stop the Music,” the sort-of musical biography about The Village People that I’m sure we’ll watch someday. All I knew about it was that story, the absurd title and all the roller skating.
Sooooo much roller skating.
Froemming, while I throw away my Warriors vest for an art smock, give us your initial take.
This movie confirmed two suspicions I had about the late 1970s-early’80s. One, there was way too much cocaine around. And two, everyone traveled via roller skates.
I had seen this before. Years ago, living in a studio apartment in Worthington, my now ex and I saw this was on Netflix and decided to give it a watch.
I can’t say it made my life at the time worse, but it didn’t make it better. That’s for sure.
Brown, as I ponder how much blow it takes to inspire neon people to jump out of a street painting to terrorize a town, why don’t you kick this off.
Brown: The movie opens with a man playing the clarinet on the beach which… yeah, I’ve never seen a movie start like that. Can’t say I wanted that, but yeah, that was weird.
Froemming: I wonder if Gene Kelly also beat Metallica in the 1989 Grammys for best metal recording?
Brown: I hope not, considering a clarinet is a woodwind instrument. The flute in Jethro Tull was metal at least, right?
Anyways, we see our main character, Sonny Malone (Beck) struggling with his artwork. Frankly, I’m glad to see Sonny finding an outlet for his angst after leaving that sketchy New York gang after Cyrus got assassinated.
What I have a question about is what kind of art Sonny is going for. We see paintings, sketchings, I think a sculpture or two. I’m all for expanding your horizons in your art, but the way it was shown on screen, I thought he was one step away from going mad like Dr. Spirograph.
Froemming: I see art like Kramer sees the Dewey Decimal System: A scam.
Anyway, after tearing up some dumb drawing and throwing the paper out his window, making this Warrior a litterbug, we see the pieced flying all over and then see this painting on a wall of what can only be described as the members of Abba on all the cocaine.
Brown: When you saw the litter flying through the air, did this also go through your head?
Froemming: I was thinking more of that dumb plastic bag from “American Beauty.”
These figures start dancing and coming to life, but because people don’t have time for lousy art, nobody notices this happening.
Brown: Yeah, the art on the wall looks like every Yes album cover Roger Dean ever designed. And then the women in the mural start coming alive. To music from Electric Light Orchestra.
I’ll admit to grinning when I heard ELO. They’re the right kind of cheesy that appeals to my sensibilities.
Now, these women are apparently the nine muses of Olympus. So yes, “Xanadu” delves into Greek mythological lore, which seems like a deeper concept than the cocaine-addled execution that this movie presents.
Froemming: Where was this muse, damnit?!
Brown: She was busy explaining to Jack Donaghy that it’s OK to call her a Puerto Rican.
Froemming: Doesn’t sound right to call someone that.
Brown: So Froemming, were you as distracted by the choreography as I was during this opening? There is no direction. Everyone is getting in the way of everyone else. I swear to God the director was Zoidberg’s uncle from “Futurama” telling all the extras to just act crazy.
Froemming: All the song and dance numbers in this movie would feel right at home in Satan’s Alley from “Staying Alive.”
Brown: And it all comes to a head when Kira, the muse played by Olivia Newton-John, roller skates over to Sonny while he’s out on the beach. She kisses him, smiles, then skates off while turning into an effect from “Tron.”
Sorry to steal your bit, Froemming, but…
Froemming: No, that is the correct response. Also, is this the very first manic pixie dream girl in a movie?
Brown: Not even close, man. In college, I had to watch “Bringing Up Baby” from 1938. THAT was the first manic pixie dream girl.
Froemming: Either way, she kisses him without his consent. I would have been mortified if that happened to me.
Brown: I’d be OK with it. Because I’m that lonely.
Froemming: Lonely and unwanted physical contact are two different things to me.
Anyway, Sonny returns to his job he left, painting giant versions of record albums for record stores. This job will soon be replaced by Kinkos, and record stores will in 30 years be replaced by Spotify. I’m glad we can talk about this without bringing up our own profession.
The boss doesn’t seem to like Sonny. He has a smart aleck coworker I found obnoxious. We find Sonny had quit this job to become an artist. There are reasons most artists starve.
Brown: I don’t blame the boss for hating Sonny at all. How much actual work do we see Sonny do in this movie? Thirty seconds, maybe? He devotes an obscene amount of time to literally anything that can distract him from work, including talking to the man playing the clarinet at the beach.
I’ve been to Venice Beach before and I never came across anyone playing the clarinet. I think I saw a saxophone. And I know I saw a man playing an electric guitar on roller blades not far from a man taking a rip out of a water bong on the sidewalk.
California is (REDACTED) weird, man.
Froemming: My first hate mail at the college paper we worked at was about a column I wrote making fun of buskers. I stand by my stance: They’re loud, nobody wants to hear them and they are usually in the way of whatever place I am trying to enter.
Send your hate mail to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brown: Wow, I feel like we opened some deep-seated hatred there of buskers. Just walk away from them, man.
Now, back to “Xanadu,” were you also thrown off like I was early on at how every character tries throwing some single woman Sonny’s way? His co-worker tries setting him up. Some random woman on the street tries setting him up. Hell, after Sonny starts going after Kira on a motorcycle (so Kira ends up on an album cover Sonny is supposed to paint so he tries to find her again), some dude whips out his wallet to show Sonny photos of his daughters that he should date.
Sir, that is not a good idea. He kind of treated this girl out in New York named Mercy like trash. He’ll do the same to your loved ones.
Froemming: That part came so fast and was so awkward it reminded me of the lady saying Johnny is her favorite customer scene in “The Room.” Just…jarring to be shoehorned in like that.
So, yeah. After chatting with Gene Kelly (who probably had to see a chiropractor after making this, since he had to carry the whole film) he chases Kira by stealing a bike that he will crash on a pier, causing him to fall into the ocean like a chucklehead.
Brown: Sonny was going, what, 10 MPH? He could have stopped before he fell off that pier. Plus, that woman (who made a pass at Sonny when he took the bike) is going to want her bike back.
Somehow Sonny gets a pair of roller skates after this and hitches a ride with a friend, eventually passing by the “Jetsons”-style building that was on the album cover with Olivia Newton-John on it. He goes (see: trespasses) in this abandoned building and hears Danny Zuko’s main squeeze singing to herself while skating around boxes.
… That kind of sounds like something from a slasher movie. In fact, the actions and sneaking around that Kira does several times in this movie are not unlike something from a “Friday the 13th” flick.
Froemming: To borrow your gag, there is something unwholesome about roller skating in the dark at night in an abandoned building.
Anyway, the next day Sonny is in hot water and has to talk to the boss. Which is a very weird exchange in which his boss told him he found happiness giving up on art to pursue making a lot of money. At 39-going-on-40, I gotta say, the boss here is in the right. We’ve seen Sonny’s art, he is going to starve to death if he continues down this path. Kinkos is going to destroy his day job, and we all know what happened to roller skates and disco.
Brown: Do you think Sonny was inspired to skate everywhere after that tussle he got into with the Punks in his previous life in New York?
Froemming: There is no doubt.
Next we see Sonny at a record store putting up one of the posters he made, and happens to bump into Danny McGuire, who offers him to come to his place to listen to Glenn Miller. I like Glenn Miller. Way more than ELO, so this was a brief sigh of relief for me.
Brown: Let’s also take a moment to acknowledge that this busker playing clarinet on the beach lives in a multi-million dollar home. People in LA must have a LOT of disposable income to give to beggars.
Turns out, Danny was a big-band orchestra player back in the ‘40s before making his nut by owning night clubs. He still has a dream of getting back in the night club game but has reservations.
So after Sonny leaves, Danny starts having flashbacks to when he had his own muse that looked suspiciously like Kira.
Froemming: It was at this moment, when my enjoyment of Gene Kelly dancing and tap dancing turned into horror when I realized that, for the rest of this movie, Sonny will brutally cuck him with his past muse.
Brown: Do you think Danny and Sonny are Eskimo brothers?
Froemming: There is no doubt.
Brown: This musical number is a good time to mention that I can’t help but laugh at all tap dancing scenes. Why, you ask? Because all tap dancing reminds me of high school when my then-girlfriend got dumped on her head during a performance of “Anything Goes.” Apparently, one of the male dancers couldn’t properly lift a girl that was just over 100 pounds. I remember the auditorium gasping. Meanwhile, 16 years later, I’m laughing about it.
Froemming: Can’t believe that relationship didn’t last.
Anywho, Danny has offered Sonny to help find a location to open a new night club. And when Kira hears this, she says why not her place?
Well, for one KIRA, I doubt you own that place, so it isn’t yours to sell. Two, you know you were Danny’s muse, so you and Sonny savagely cucking him is despicable. Three, it is a (REDACTED) dump. Three solid reasons why this space-age looking building is wrong for Danny’s dream of a classy nightclub.
Brown: Yeah, anything that is art deco, like this abandoned building, makes me think it would be a building in the world of “Atlas Shrugged” for some reason. Maybe because one of the book covers I’ve seen of “Atlas Shrugged” had an art deco look. What I’m getting at is (REDACTED) Ayn Rand. I know you share the same sentiment, Froemming.
Also, why is Danny trusting his dream of opening a nightclub to Sonny? He’s a failed artist, not a real-estate agent, and they’ve known each other for, what, two days? You’re only into Sonny because the girl he’s obsessed over looks like a woman you knew in the ‘40s.
Continuing with things that make no sense, Sonny takes Kira back to the studio and shows her this weird glass contraption that looks not unlike Willy Wonka’s rocket ship. It can project images to help inspire musical acts, so Sonny turns it on and our inspiring image is *checks notes* the rooftop from “The Room,” complete with bad green screen?!
My brain trying to decipher this whole musical number:
God, I missed that clip.
Froemming: What is this place supposed to be? It is a studio of some sort, not for music. We get these weird set pieces for plays or a movie, but it is run by the boss of the record studio/label/???, so why would he own this? Then IT RAINS? And the boss somehow breaks everything.
After this baffling scene, we now have Sonny trying to sell Danny on buying this dump from Kira. This sounds like, as you said, a scam. What’s next, Sonny, you have Danny buy products to sell in a reverse funnel system situation?
Brown: Sonny’s sales pitch on this location is somehow weirder than the studio scene. Danny dreams of a stylish club that harkens back to his heyday in the ‘40s. Meanwhile, Sonny imagines the Mountain Lightning version of Devo playing this club? Hell, at one point, the concert in Sonny’s head has a black woman being chained up against a wall! I actually said “holy shit” out loud as that popped up on screen.
Then, their images of big orchestral band and modern rock n’ roll merge together. Later, when their idea comes to fruition, it’ll look NOTHING like this.
This inspires Danny to invest a ton of money into a club that, in the end of the movie, has like 20 people in it. Sonny basically ruins Danny’s life at every angle in this movie.
Then we see Sonny ruin his own life by telling his boss off like he is Johnny Paycheck.
And if you thought Big Band-meets-Satan’s-Alley-Devo was bizarre, wait until Sonny and Kira kiss and BECOME CARTOONS!
This animated sequence is like the weirder, disco-cousin to the movie “Heavy Metal.”
Brown: This movie got the talents of Don Bluth — the guy who once worked for Disney and animated “The Land Before Time” and “An American Tail,” among others — and wasted them.
Froemming: I will never forgive Bluth for the hellish experience of playing “Dragon’s Lair” was.
Brown: Plenty of children of the ‘80s are probably right there with you.
At the end of the day, the drawings look nothing like Michael Beck and Olivia Newton-John. Like, they’re hilariously off.
Opening day for the new nightclub, which they name Xanadu, is getting closer. Danny wants to get some sharp threads for the occasion, which leads to ANOTHER musical number/cocaine nightmare.
It’s a sequence that A. has a dressing room curtain that is a woman’s legs opening up when you walk out, and B. ends with Danny dressed like Dolemite.
Froemming: I would have liked this if this song was playing during the scene:
Though I do like Danny looking like a pimp here.
Now we come to the part where Kira just straight-up says she has to break Sonny’s heart, like how these two broke Danny’s heart with the cuckolding and all. He does not want to believe she is a muse, he prefers the manic pixie dream girl who roller skates out of paintings and once sang for the Glenn Miller Orchestra rationale.
She even, at one point, shows him a dictionary where the definition of “muse” is written by her. This hammers home the fact Sonny is a bit dim.
Brown: Before the breakup, there’s a point inside Xanadu where Kira and Sonny are slow-dancing to no music. Just like roller skating in the dark in an abandoned building, it’s so unwholesome.
So yeah, Kira reveals herself as a muse and because of that, she and Sonny can’t have a relationship. Then she starts talking about muses and who they inspired.
Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Sonny Malone.
One of these things is not like the others. Also, opening a nightclub is equal to making timeless art/music?
Well, now Sonny tells Danny that he doesn’t care about their dream of running Xanadu.
Question: Can you call it a dream of yours if it’s only been a “dream” for, what, a week? It’s Danny’s dream, because he has wanted to get back into owning a club for years. Decades even. Sonny only got into this because he’s pussy-whipped. By a woman he cannot have because she’s literally a character from Greek mythology. See: MYTH.
Froemming: Well, all that logic is not going to prevent Sonny from getting Kira back by roller skating at full-speed into a brick wall with a painting of Kira on it. The following scene is what I imagine Sonny saw while in a coma from all the head trauma he experienced.
In this coma, he is held by lasers and Kira continues to tell him “no,” which he should just respect. But doesn’t. Even in this surreal laser-tag world he concussed himself into, he ignores her “nos” like he is John (REDACTED) Travolta in just about every movie of his we have reviewed.
Brown: So from this movie, we can posit that heaven looks like an REO Speedwagon album cover.
Not only is Kira saying no to Sonny, but ZEUS HIMSELF says no to Sonny.
Only, when Sonny is sent back to Earth, Mnemosyne, the mother of the nine muses, gets Zeus to lighten up.
Now, we get to opening night at Xanadu and MY GOD. A decade’s worth of coke at Studio 54 was used in one night at Xanadu.
I legit thought that the movie would end on a still frame, with text reading: “Due to obscene operating costs due to choreography, costume changes and roller skates, Xanadu closed the next day.”
I never need to do cocaine. Because I watched “Xanadu.”
Froemming: Oh yeah. Kira and the muses do a song-and-dance number that is all over the map. At one point, Kira and Sonny suddenly turn into Bud and Sis from “Urban Cowboy” and I got some nasty flashbacks from that.
And then the song ends, and we see Xanadu is a half-empty club with bad painting and Danny drinking his sorrows away.
Sonny is bummed because he will never see Kira again. Until she becomes a waitress at the club?
They are officially Bud and Sis at the end of this movie.
Brown: “Xanadu” is the Chewbacca Defense of movies: It does not make sense.
Froemming, let’s get to recommendations so I can buy some reeds for my beach clarinet.
WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?
Froemming: No. No I would not.
Here is what’s coming up for the next Joe-Down: