Guest Star

Xanadu’s Persistence of Memory

thumbnail-sonny-at-paintingI watched Xanadu on HBO dozens of times in the early 1980s. My obsession also included the soundtrack, which I listened to on a Walkman while attired in scarves, leotards, ruffled skirts, and legwarmers. Sadly, my skills at ballet, tap, and jazz did not translate into roller skating, so I pretended I was Olivia Newton-John by twirling around my grandmother’s carport. It pains me how much Xanadu was savaged by critics then and mocked by movie fans over the last 33 years. Sure, there are a lot of corny bits, but I think Xanadu is a truly postmodern film.

The Journal of Postmodern Culture (PMC), describes postmodernism as a “synthetic approach,” whereby modernism’s “lone creative artist” is “abandoned for the playful technician . . .who could retrieve and recombine creations from the past.” This is certainly true of Xanadu. Sonny Malone (Michael Beck) enlarges album cover art into signage for record stores. He’s upset that his talent is being wasted, but it isn’t until he meets Kira (Olivia Newton-John) and Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly) that he realizes his purpose: to collaborate on a new nightclub called Xanadu.


The location, although not named in the film, is the Pan-Pacific Auditorium, which opened in 1935 and by the time of Xanadu’s release, had been closed for eight years. The Pan-Pacific was a gorgeous example of Streamline Moderne architecture, a late Art Deco style.


Although Sonny is a hip, modern guy who roller-skates, he’s a bit old-fashioned at heart. He drives a 1930s Ford Woody in immaculate condition and he loves Glenn Miller. As it turns out, Danny was in Miller’s band in the 1940s. Danny lives in a beautiful French Baroque apartment that used to belong to a Hollywood movie star, a subtle reminder of Gene Kelly’s real life. Although he sometimes plays clarinet on the beach, Danny has put his music career behind him, after the female singer in the band broke his heart.

Xanadu paints a vivid portrait of the power of music to evoke memories and induce nostalgia when Danny listens to “Whenever You’re Away From Me” on his stereo. There’s a faint image of the band on screen left; Danny is seeing the past while he is hearing it. Then, all the furniture disappears and the ghostly image of his past love (Olivia Newton-John, in Victory rolls and an approximation of the WAC uniform) dances towards the ghostly image of Danny. He has been transported into the past. The two kiss and reappear in the present time. They dance and sing together, including Newton-John’s line, “I’ll never be far away.” She vanishes and Danny is once again alone, listening to a fading memory.


Although Danny’s past love is never named, it’s clear that she’s an earlier manifestation of Kira. It is she who suggests the Pan-Pacific as the location for Danny’s proposed nightclub. It’s the background of the album cover that Sonny paints in the beginning, which features Kira, even though she wasn’t supposed to be in it. Xanadu makes clear early on, however, that there are no coincidences.

Sonny isn’t convinced, but he takes Danny there and they try to imagine the possibilities. Danny sees a bandstand, while Sonny envisions a rock band. The aural and visual aesthetic of The Tubes and their audience (although the band isn’t identified) is exactly what Sonny has in mind as “Dancin'” plays in the film. From the post-punk, New Wave attire of modified motorcycle jackets and bright colors, to the post-disco glam of spandex, lurex, animal prints, and glitter, the men are wearing as much makeup as the women.

On the other hand, Danny’s version of “Dancin'” is straight up 1940s. There is an orchestra, women wearing snoods, swing skirts, and bobby socks, and even men in zoot suits. Soon, Sonny and Danny’s visions commingle, literally and physically. The two songs begin to overlap, the two groups of dancers meet, and the stages mesh together, until both are completely integrated. It’s the first mashup!


Danny is convinced and asks Sonny to be his partner. Danny passes the torch of fulfilled dreams onto Sonny, who’s never seen a dream fulfilled. Sonny becomes Danny’s son and heir, inheriting the dream from him. Even the name of the club, suggested by Kira, evokes dreaming. It appears in the opening lines of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” which Coleridge claimed he wrote after an opium-influenced dream and which Kira and Danny quote to each other.

On the night before Xanadu opens, Danny is nervous and Kira tells him, “Just pretend we’re back in 1945 again,” in a call back to the earlier musical number between them. Danny replies. “I don’t have to pretend. It is 1945 again.” Kira smiles knowingly and the implication is that he knows she’s a new “version” of his lost love.

When Kira confesses to Sonny that she is a muse, she starts to give him her real name, Terpsichore, one of the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, which means “memory personified,” so it’s only appropriate that Kira brings Danny’s past into the present with Sonny to forge a new future for the two of them.

Trying to convince Sonny that she is a muse means Kira must work more magic, like entering a 1940s-style film noir that’s playing on Sonny’s TV and breaking its fourth wall by speaking directly to him. In the film within the film, she portrays a femme fatale, and she continues to fulfill this role by breaking Sonny’s heart when she returns to the realm of the gods.


Sonny breaks into that realm by entering the nine muses painting he supposedly created. After he professes his love and is forced to leave, Kira sings “Suspended In Time,” an apt metaphor for her position. Trapped here, she can no longer help merge the past, present, and future. Yet, Zeus and Mnemosyne are ancient gods and frequently get confused between “one moment” and “forever” and allow Kira to return for the opening night of Xanadu.

The following extended dance sequences employ a mixture of various styles, with Kira as the main thread in all of them. The first, with Kira tap dancing dressed like Betty Grable, is shot from above like Busby Berkeley’s 1930s films. Kira then morphs into a tough Pat Benatar-style rock chick, an urban cowgirl, a stylized Art Deco queen, and finally her original muse attire, before disappearing into the sky.


Afterwards, we see Sonny, alone, watching the empty stage while “Magic” plays. The ending is ambiguous: Is it a mortal version of Kira who Danny introduces to Sonny, or an immortal one?

I once opined that the Internet—and by association, postmodernism itself—allows us to travel through time: “Within minutes, we can witness the exploding popularity of a band, TV show, film, song . . . and seconds later, unearth something from 30 years ago that we never even knew existed. In this way, time has almost become meaningless. A vast horizon reduced to a single pixel.”

Xanadu is a magical manifestation of this idea. The Art Deco lines of the Pan-Pacific Auditorium, the Xanadu lettering, the slit wipes between scenes, the colored lines on Mount Olympus, and the rainbow streaks that return the muses home are all through lines connecting the ancient gods to the 1930s and 1940s then onward to the 1980s and beyond. In a way, it doesn’t matter if Kira is immortal at the end of the world of the film, because through her, time has become meaningless. It only takes watching Xanadu again to bring her back into our world.


Less Lee Moore is the creator and managing editor of Popshifter, a pop culture blog that aims to shift the tone of pop culture criticism away from needless snark and towards a more positive, fan-centric one.

When she’s not gorging herself on horror movies, she spends way too much time thinking about the Hannibal TV series. And getting into lively Twitter debates. Her favorite movie ever is Velvet Goldmine. She still laments the end of Law & Order.

4 replies »

  1. Great piece on a film whose camp sometimes overwhelms the viewer too much to think through everything that’s going on it.

    Regarding Xanadu and memory, when I finally saw this as an adult in 2008, I realized that I had remembered parts of it as seemingly different films. When it was a cable staple in the early 80s, my older sister would watch it whenever it was on…and being too young to really understand it fully, I just remembered snatches of it. What a joyful (and I guess appropriate) rush of nostalgia it was seeing this on a big screen with an appreciative audience, suddenly transported back to some of my earliest pop culture memories.


  2. Ditto! This film was probably the first time I’d ever really seen Gene Kelly, and it began my deep admiration for his moves.


  3. Initially seeing the film with my father at age 13, having just smoked a joint together as he parked the car and we marched into the Pasadena, CA theatre it had just started playing at that very day, we were both so charmed and thoroughly entertained by XANADU that we hardly took notice of what an awful picture we had just seen! It wasn’t until the ridiculously negative, unappreciative and consistently glaringly bad reviews of it began to explode all over the world, that my dad and I very quickly became aware that the two of us had been wrong all along, and that our enjoyment of the picture clearly meant, based upon all that we were reading and hearing from what the media, was telling us about XANADU, we surmised that we obviously hadn’t actually understood the film clearly enough to grasp the simple fact that it was such a piece of worthless shit! Well, that was certainly a new one on me! At such a young age, I had already seen such psychologically challenging fare as DON’T LOOK NOW, THE EXORCIST, SUNSET BOULEVARD,THE WICKER MAN, ERASERHEAD, PERFORMANCE and Altman’s 3 WOMEN, and I had no discernable issues processing and enjoying the unusual merits of any of those much more mature and adult-oriented works… What on Earth, I silently pondered, was it my father and I had seemingly overlooked, or was it somehow perhaps that dad and I were simply not sophisticated and well seasoned enough of film-goers to have correctly surmised that XANADU was such a wretched piece of celluloid excess (excrement?), and that any common fool could transparently see wholeheartedly that it undeniably was an absolute waste of anyone’s time! Well, XANADU, as it turned out, was NOT the only time I was WRONG about the quality and tenure of a motion picture. In the subsequent 42 years, my particular psychic slant on several movies has been challenged by popular opinion on occasions far too numerous to mention here, and, each and every time, I still KNOW in my heart and intellect, that factually everyone else’s opinions were the one’s that were off, or incorrect.


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