Saturday, April 12, 2014



Shooting on The Saga of Toni, just one of the stunning numbers from my new lady mobster musical, Goodfollies, continued without too many major incidents. It was hell to get up and go to work and have to face Margo Channing, as my psychiatrist, Duchess Malfi, on the set at the Tower of London on a daily basis, but we eventually had to do the bit where she went into mime whiteface and that made her more pleasant to look at. The tap break where I lead a chorus of thirty beefeaters on a romp through the Jewel House is sure to be a highlight. We had to do a number of takes as all these bells kept ringing during the early tries. The assistant director finally realized that all of the little red laser beams were some sort of alarm system and not set decoration so we had to re-choreograph around them.

There's a really cute little bit at the end of the second verse, the one that ends Toni made her mind up, like good Queen Bess - but in twenty-seven languages, she couldn't say yes.... Nick Nolte came in to do a quick cameo as Edward IV of York, just one of the Wars of the Roses figures that pop up in the number and I leap from the Tower scaffold into his arms as the ravens flutter all around me. It's just stunning - but Nick really does need to see a doctor. He kept drooling through take after take and mumbling about how he wasn't really driving. The end result will be fine, though; the director assures me the saliva can be digitally removed in post-production.

As I was very into flamboyant musical numbers, I retired one evening with my portable DVD player and popped in the 1980 musical fantasy, Xanadu with Olivia Newton-John in her big musical follow-up to her hit, GreaseGrease was a snazzy adaptation of a hit Broadway show that spoofed the fifties. The producers slyly brought a seventies sensibility and music to it and made it an international phenomenon. Some executive at Universal Studios took one look at this and, instead of coming up with something suitable to his female star's talents, the naturally occurring pair of thoughts, Olivia and roller disco, came into his mind and a film was born. By the time the film was developed, shot, marketed and released, the craze for disco, especially of the roller skating variety, was long past and the film was a notorious flop. Olivia's songs, however, were heavily marketed and became major hits and she sailed on serenely to become one of the top pop acts of the early 80s.

Xanadu is best described as a musical fantasy. Olivia plays the muse Terpsichore, who, along with her eight sisters, comes to life one day out of a Venice Beach mural. She has been sent to earth as the mysterious Kira, to make sure that an opulent roller disco, the titular 'Xanadu', is created. Her unlikely vehicles for this are Sonny (Michael Beck), a young artist who paints enlargements of album covers for record stores but who longs for something more and Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly), an aging clarinetist from the big band era with money who longs to open a club once more. Sonny falls for Kira even though there's problems with the relationship - he's a mortal, she's an ethereal spirit who seems to live in some sort of neon marquee. Eventually everything falls together, the club opens, peopled by most of the dancers in Hollywood and Olivia and Electric Light Orchestra perform a fifteen minute production number that has to be seen to be believed.

Actually the whole film has to be seen to be believed. The musical numbers are high concept fantasy pieces full of dazzle and color and heightened reality, sort of like really strange peyote visions. They're lively and fun, but a few of them are incredibly embarrassing. There's an animated bit, early Don Bluth, that will make you cringe; a number about dressing up in which Gene Kelly is put into some of the most ridiculous men's clothes ever assembled for a film. (He looks more and more embarrassed as the number progresses but keeps giving it the old college try, despite the chartreuse and hot pink and sequins); there's even the old standby of chorus cuties in jungle prints snarling at the camera. Just when you want to turn the film off, there's a moment that actually works, such as a charming scene in a studio full of special effects in which our leads roller-skate to the song Suddenly.

Olivia was a perfect choice for a painting brought to life. She's completely two dimensional throughout. It's a complete non-performance. She only comes alive when she's singing. Fortunately, her usual producer and song writer, John Farrar, gave her good material. For some odd reason, the writers (Richard Danus, Marc Rubel) decided to make her Terpsichore, the muse of the dance and then cast eight dancers as her sisters. Anyone who has ever seen Olivia on film knows she is not a dancer - she strikes poses while others dance around her. It's a bit incongruous. With her various teased hairstyles and overdone make-up, I would have thought Erato was more apropos. Fortunately, she does not give the worst performance in the film. That honor goes to Michael Beck as her love interest. He appears to be impersonating a block of wood throughout and doesn't give a single convincing line reading. If his part had been cast with someone who could give a little comic brio and romance, the film might have had a little oomph and might have become at least a modest success. It's one of the worst performances ever in a major motion picture and his career fizzled soon thereafter. Gene Kelly plays Gene Kelly. He's fine, but what's he doing in a movie about roller disco?

The music and some of the visuals are the best things about the film and, when it's approached as a sequence of 70s music videos, it's much more enjoyable than if it's approached as a comedy or a romance or even a musical. Besides the aforementioned Suddenly, the score includes You Have To Believe We Are Magic and the title song. It's sort of a big budget remake of the Linda Blair classic Roller Boogie, only a few years too late to cash in on the craze. It makes a lovely triple bill with the Village People vehicle Can't Stop the Music and the BeeGees in Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band which have a similar visual style and are other examples of how a big Hollywood budget completely misunderstands and misappropriates pop culture phenomena. Similar thinking will, I'm sure, soon give us Ricky Martin in Don Giovanni.

The DVD has a nice widescreen transfer and the film appears to be in good shape. Sound and color are fine. There are no significant extras, just the usual bios, trailer and a few production notes.

Flitting color bars. Wisecracking co-workers. Multiple gratuitous drug references. Million dollar night club set with fountains and light tiles. Gratuitous Tubes concert. Jitterbugging chorines. Fantasy bandstands. Gratuitous Coral Browne. Country-Western Olivia. Jungle Olivia. Outer space Olivia.

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