Let's talk about Xanadu.
Specifically, let's talk about what makes it a terrible film.
The crime here is a common one among bad movies that aren't always ideal to riff; it's unengaging in every way. The characters are flat and we have no investment in them, the story is drawn out and lacks any semblance of real conflict, and the spectacle is dry and unspectacular. What's there to like about this movie? For that matter, what's there to riff? Not a lot. I don't often genuinely hate the movies we show here, but Xanadu came damn close. Let's take a look at why.
Who was your favourite character? Olivia Newton John? Senile Gene Kelly? Lead guy with Luke Skywalker Hair? Can you recall a single name? ONJ's name is on the tip of my tongue, but I can't remember it without looking it up (it was Kira). This is no way to craft a narrative. I don't identify with Skywalker because being in an arty field myself, an artist complaining about being employed rings false. I can't identify with Olivia Newton John because, well, she has no goddamned character; she's less a person than a plot device on roller skates, though to be completely fair, I think that's what the movie intended with the whole "muse" thing. The truth of the matter is I identified closer with Gene Kelly than anyone, if only for the fact that his hallucinations suggested a deep desire to escape from the 70s back to a less spandexy time. And even he didn't really work as a character because, well, let's face it, he pretty much only existed to enable (read: fund) Skywalker's Xanadu vision. This is the main motivation of the movie, and he comes to share by it way of mutual hallucination.
Which brings us to story. Where does the motivation come from here? Skywalker is depressed until Olivia Newton John shows up, and by way of several extremely roundabout narrative leaps, he decides he wants to open a rollerdisco? And Gene Kelly just goes with it? Even if we assume these hallucinations are just especially potent visions brought on by muse-Olivia Newton John, what does that make the story? A story about humans as pawns, being pushed about by a very tame interpretation of the Greco-Roman pantheon. Because, Zeus likes rollerskates I guess. And that's the heart of the trouble with the narrative; there's no investment in any of the characters, and thus no reason to care what they do. We don't care about Skywalker's ennui because an artist complaining about an unfulfilling job is like if my cat started complaining that he talks with a lisp, and we don't share his ambitions because what we're led to believe is a soul-moving vision from a muse just comes across as a poorly filmed drawn out dance sequence.
Can't forget those, can we? It certainly doesn't guarantee a good film, and it's more than a bit overused, but spectacle is an important part of filmmaking, and can make or break something like a musical where production emphasises the fantastic and hyperreal. It was also almost certainly what Xanadu was banking on, and the film provides an excellent post-mortem of failed spectacle. From the start, we're accosted with cutting edge 1980 special effects ostensibly to evoke the supernatural, but really adding nothing to the film. It's a classic example of overusing new technology just because it's there, and it's not likely to stop soon (read: Ghost Rider 2). In this case, you almost get the feeling scenes were written to the effects instead of the other way around, like Skywalker's visit to Olympus during Zeus's Tron phase. And let's not forget the scene transitions, these awful little switcher effects that nowadays usually signify your grandmother's vacation reel that she made with Pinnacle Studios FX or the start of a Pokemon battle.
But wait, we can't leave aside the heart of a musical, the musical numbers themselves. What can I say other than bluh. Boring choreography that feels more like the dancers were just winging it, boring camera work that holds on static shots for minutes at a time, boring everything. What was with the camera work anyway? Try this: look up any of the dance scenes from Endhiran, and compare them to Xanadu. Granted that's like comparing Thriller to, well, Xanadu, but bear with me here. You know what Endhiran did with the camera? They actually moved it. They put it on a crane and took huge, sweeping shots that did justice to every backup dancer, even when those backup dancers were mostly CGI Superstar Rajnis. Xanadu just kind of... watched. And it doesn't matter what the spectacle is, you can have Eccentrica Gallumbits making out with Abe Lincoln, but if it's behind an army of gyrating spandex clad rollerskaters, I can't see it. Which is the trouble with Xanadu's spectacle. It may well be there. But I can't see it behind all the 70s. And please, please, whoever is responsible for it, don't hold a shot for five minutes without good reason. A well orchestrated, dynamic long shot (read: Rope) can be very impressive, but a static shot of one character singing for five minutes is not.
I do see why it was a successful Broadway show though. For starters, a number of the spectacle related failures of the film no longer apply, as there's no camera to fuck up and broadway visual effects are a fair bit less open to abuse. But when I looked it up, I found out that it was actually a comedy, and adds a new subplot for Kira (now Clio) that serves to explain and humanise her romance with Skywalker, which was so shallow in the movie I haven't actually touched upon it until now. I wouldn't watch it, but I think it makes a great study in adaptation decay actually improving a work.
I can't, however, see why it's considered a "cult classic" by any stretch of the word. It's definitely not good, and in my opinion it's not even funny bad. It doesn't fall into that bell curve of mediocrity I frequently condemn, oh no, it's a shitter, but it's just not bad in an enjoyable or riffable way. I was truly angry at the movie by the end of it, and I'm still not quite sure why. Maybe it was because I had just watched Endhiran, and that's like washing down a sirloin steak with the runoff from a George Foreman grill, but I don't think it was that.
No, I think this movie's greatest offense is in the payoff. I know I said I was uninvested earlier, but I think I was wrong. I was invested, just not with Skywalker. I was in fact strongly opposed to their vision. I didn't want more rollerdisco. I didn't want Xanadu. I hated the idea of watching any more of these Lisa Frank looking prats galavanting about, singing about how fucking wonderful their rollerdisco is. I didn't want that. And so the film gave it to me as the climax. It was like a tragedy, only everyone's happy about it for some reason, like if Morgan Freeman gave an impassioned speech cheering on the comet at the end of Deep Impact. And it felt like the movie was mocking me. Not since Transformers has a movie been so bad as to evoke that feeling of sentient malevolence. It's that bad. So if I seemed a little angry last night, that's why.