A look back at some of the behind-the-scenes stories from this Olivia Newton-John cult favorite
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.
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.
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.
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 Xanadu is 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.”
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?
Ouch. Just ouch. But hey – she soldiered through anyway.
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.”
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.
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.
If you remember the production for the song “Dancin’,” then you probably know that quite a bit went into the dance numbers in Xanadu. “Dancin’ ” is in particular a marvel, if one that’s very of-the-era. Kenny Ortega, who planned the choreography alongside Jerry Trent, went on to a high-profile career. Today, he counts among his hits Pretty in Pink, Dirty Dancing, Newsies, Hocus Pocus and the High School Musical movies.
Sandahl Bergman, who is perhaps most famous for playing the female warrior Valeria in Conan the Barbarian in 1982, was originally a dancer. In Xanadu, she plays one of the muses.
People may not have initially flocked to theaters to catch Xanadu, but they loved the soundtrack, and the single “Magic” scored Newton-John a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks in August 1980.
Newton-John collaborated with Electric Light Orchestra for the title track. Though it fared well enough in the U.S., reaching No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100, the track was a huge international hit, reaching No. 1 in England, Spain, Norway, the Netherlands, Israel, Ireland, Germany, Belgium and Austria.
The album went double platinum in the U.S. and managed five Top 20 hits, including “Magic,” “Xanadu,” “Suddenly,” “All over the World” and “I’m Alive.”
In fact, two of them stand out as being especially pithy in their meanness. Esquire famously summed up the movie in a single sentence: “In a word, Xana-don’t.” Variety got in a good jab too, describing Newton-John’s character – who glowed periodically, because, you know, muse magic, I guess? – as “a roller skating lightbulb.” Womp womp.
The Golden Raspberries, for those who are too nice to pay attention, honor the worst of a given year’s cinematic efforts. They were born after their creator, John Wilson, sat through Xanadu and another not-so-kindly reviewed musical from 1980. As Wilson explained to TIME, “I happened to pay 99 cents for a double feature of Can’t Stop the Music and Olivia Newton-John in Xanadu and was refused my money back afterward.” At the inaugural awards, Can’t Stop the Music beat out Xanadu for Worst Picture, and Brooke Shields in The Blue Lagoon beat out Newton-John for Worst Actress.
The beautiful streamline moderne building that becomes the eponymous nightclub in the film was actually the Pan Pacific Auditorium, which was once a popular venue in Los Angeles. When Xanadu used it for its exterior scenes, it had fallen into disrepair, and in 1989, it burned to the ground. Today, the site is a park that in part reflects the beautiful architecture seen in Xanadu.
In 1983, Newton-John’s starring role in Xanadu prompted Louisiana resident Michael Owen Perry to think that the actress actually was a Greek goddess who used her eyes to communicate with him. The story, as summarized by Entertainment Weekly, ended with Perry going on a killing spree. Speaking to EW, Newton-John said the incident marked a frightening moment in her high-profile career. “I guess because I was playing this ethereal character, he got reality and show business confused,” she said. “I left the country for a while. That was a very scary time.”
Preserving many of the hit songs from the original movie but substantially rewriting the story and dialogue, the Broadway musical Xanadu opened in 2007 and proved to be a success with critics and audiences alike. It was nominated for four Tony Awards and and closed in 2008, after 49 previews and 513 performances.
And just for the record, this play would be a Broadway adaptation of an ’80s film that was a remake of a sequel to a 1941 movie that was originally a play. Whew. That’s enough to necessitate a disco nap.