September 22, 1980 12:00 PM

Olivia Newton-John’s encore—after Grease—is an awkward musical fantasy that dooms the Australian songbird to play a muse, one of Zeus’ nine daughters. Over the centuries she has inspired the likes of Shakespeare and Beethoven; now she’s concentrating on Gene Kelly, an unhappily retired clarinetist, and Michael Beck, a commercial artist tired of selling out. Her magic brings both men together as owners of Xanadu, a tacky roller disco that combines the big-band sound of the ’40s with today’s New Wave. Musically, the two mix like oil and water, but Olivia is oblivious. She has a worse problem: Beck has made her love him—a no-no for immortals. So much for plot. What should have been a goddess-on-earth soufflé (a la One Touch of Venus) becomes in the hands of director Robert (Broadway’s Me and Bessie) Greenwald the flattest, most annoyingly artsy musical since The Wiz. No amount of flamboyant lighting, animation and opticals can disguise the dead space at the film’s core. It’s not Olivia’s fault; she warbles fetchingly (even on wheels), and her sweet-tough upper register makes the purest gossamer of songs like Magic by John Farrar and Xanadu by the Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne. Seeing the great Kelly dance again is also an unmitigated pleasure—his softshoe with Olivia to Whenever You’re Away from Me brings the movie fitfully to life. But he dances too little—and he is not onscreen enough. Otherwise the rest of the film, muse or no muse, is sadly uninspired. (PG)

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