Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Condoms are for Quitters: XANADU (1980) and the Death of the Naked Rock Musical

Once a proud and shirtless beast, the rock musical has all but vanished from the landscape. Fringe events like REPO: THE GENETIC OPERA or DR. HORRIBLE or 'jukebox' fare like ROCK OF AGES and MAMA MIA do not count. The first are freak events courting cult status, the latter incorporate only tried and tested tunes written long before their Broadway shows.  CHICAGO, LES MISERABLES or PHANTOM don't count either. But there was a time when the rock musical soared on wings of brilliance. I'm talking of course of the late 60s-early 70s -the age when impassioned singing met electric guitars and funky bass; bi-curious guys in silver make-up and long hair strutted shirtless, and God was not ignored.

This was the era of Vietnam, and Times Square was not a place to bring the kids, at least not at night, for it was rotten with grindhouses, adult bookstores, prostitutes and flashy pimps, bums, hippies, sadomasochists, junkies and--most shocking of all to our Anita Bryant-poisoned minds--queers. A day trip to NYC to see a show with the family often consisted of waiting in line at the TKTS kiosk on the barrier island in the center of the street, ogling (without making eye contact) the passing freak parade in a mix of veiled horror and sardonic faux-blase' disinterest, like a zoo without bars where the animals wouldn't bother you if you didn't make eye contact. After the show, after the family car finally cleared the morass of sordid swamp outer industrial wasteland running between NJ and NY, you sighed in relief to be back in boring old suburbia, like Dorothy at the end of OZ, with a new appreciation of black-and-white Kansas.

When their later film versions came around, ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, GODSPELL (all 1973), THE WIZ (1978) and HAIR (1979) all had to be toned down (though porn star Paul Thomas shows up in JCS). Meanwhile crazy Brits like Ken Russell gave us wild album-based spin-offs like TOMMY and films that tried to become a hair musical film without being a show first (like 1975's LISZTOMANIA) and Broadway was cutting out the love child rhapsodizing and playing up the nudity right on the billboard, as in the all-nude musical revue OH! CALCUTTA!

Surrounded by the sleaze of Times Square, CALCUTTA and its ilk managed to stay somehow clean by contrast and so showed Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public that those scruffy homeless kids on the street might be disguised angels, so go ahead get aroused but don't judge. Books like Erica Jong's Fear of Flying with its ode to the "zipless f-ck," the tawdry glam gossip of Rona Barett, and the cute old lady sex specialist, Dr. Ruth (below, right), all created a sense that women should be enjoying their newly-appointed orgasms. Extramarital swinging and casual sex were now as healthy and normal as going to church or making dinner for your family --and as a result, the world was just a little less uptight (especially compared with today, sigh).  All the while, we kids were listening in, soaking up the loose parental prana with our hungry spinal snake-sponges. It all seemed very tawdry to us, though. Like everything after you turned 18 was going to be one of those depressingly sordid Seka movies. No wonder we jumped on the CONAN train and started bashing orgiasts in mid-feast. It all seemed so scary that swords and carnae was less traumatizing to imagine.

But that carnage-preference only came in the 80s, after VHS dulled us to the adult sex mystique. Going back to the 70s, now, and remembering how it ended, self-destructed, we recall that in midst of all the tawdry Broadway sex came the arrival into the mainstream suburban swinger lexicon of my least favorite drug, cocaine. And as coke became 'hip' so did disco and at last kids and adults found something to agree on.

We kids loved disco. You could dance like a maniac to it, jumping around and jive talking and every other kid in town had parents or siblings with the Saturday Night Fever (1977)  soundtrack, a mainstay at every birthday party I went to, it was as present in parental and older sibling record collections as Frampton Comes Alive. Disco was crossing boundaries the Christian-pagan decadent arias of Broadway and the best-seller list never could, for the homosexual and coke aspects were sublimated deep by the time it all got to prime time TV, and we kids loved the spangly costumes and were learning disco moves in gym class.


We kids had long pondered the electric strangeness of the Hair and Sgt. Pepper's album covers in our parents' record rack. And yet we were afraid to play them. But we loved John Travolta from Welcome Back, Kotter, so seeing him on the Saturday Night Fever cover made everything all right. He had the working-class Italian vibe we were now familiar with via ROCKY, and the Fonz (and the hated Cha-Chi, and tolerated Carmine) but he could also sing and act stupid with a winning smile that let you know he was far smarter than he'd ever let on. As long as he was connected to it, disco could cross over to suburbia, where, as I've said before, we loved The Village People because they were dressed like all our favorite icons as kids - cowboys, Native Americans, motorcycle cops - and not one of us ever imagined they were, you know...

We also found the relative sexlessness of, say, TV variety shows like The Captain and Tenille, Donny and Marie, and Shields and Yarnell very soothing, a buffer from all the sordid sleaze and electric shocks. I recall that towards the end of the 70s, when I was 12-13, sex was starting to get on my nerves. I had a lot of 'pent-up' energy by then. Not that anyone molested me, on the contrary - I initiated what would now be considered minor molestation with two babysitters, my dad's secretary, two of my mom's friends, and one very nubile young daughter of one of said friends, all before I was 12 years-old. And in the malls I would sneak into Spencer's Gifts and marvel at the dirty novelties and thumb though Fear of Flying and get massive 10 year-old boy hormonal surges. But being only ten or so I had no orgasm, or even knew about them. I had been led (thanks to some Judy Blume book) to think that the orgasm discharge was a gush of blood, and thus I was terrified to even try. And while sex was considered normal and healthy at the time, masturbation was considered a deranged, sad act. Wet dreams were discussed, in terrified tones, at the playground, and widely considered far more humiliating than merely wetting the bed.

It was only natural with all that stored venom that when the right bad influence friend came along I would give up girls and turn my attention to WW2, and with war arose the need for 'clean' home front entertainment, time to organize our HO scale SS Panzer divisions, time gather the other barbarians and clean out Thulsa Doom's sex dungeon.

And as we were gathering up our fear and loathing... XANADU did a stately 80s pleasure-free dome decree.

Sandahl Bergman at far right
1979: GREASE had broken the mold on 'the past' (it played in theaters for years) and Happy Days was a huge hit with kids in TV. In other words, at the very end of the 70s, the 50s were cool again (ayyyyy!) and the 40s dance club variety show schtick of the 70s--brought up like the Titanic for XANADU--was out. Some piece of crap called "Disco Duck" was a hit on the chart, the guy who 'sang' it (Rick Dees) wondered what to do for a follow-up. He came out with "Disco Gorilla" - i.e. "Discor-illa" (It's so cheesy I can't even post it but you can check it out here). Disco was almost solely in the realm of children by now. And even we sneered at his Disco-rilla. It died, and dragged disco down with it. Yes, Rick Dees killed disco, but it had been already dying. Coke kills, man. The intensity of a craze was directly in proportion to the speed in which it burned itself out.

Meanwhile, whatever 'free love' had represented before the mid-70s was being swallowed up into blue collar triumphs (ROCKY in 1977) and old school nostalgia, reaching back too far, past the greasers and do wop (which GREASE and Billy Joel had initiated along with HAPPY DAYS) and to see how far they could take it, producers reached into the dusty attic of Gene Kelly and Glen Miller. Hordes of films set in the 20s, 30s, and 40s had saturated the theaters. THE STING won best picture in 1973 (see my piece The Period Piece Period), but that was back in the early part of the decade; now the only nostalgia we cared for was 50s working class suburbia, or Brooklyn street gangs, and lo, in came WELCOME BACK KOTTER and John Travolta.

Cleaned Travota on Captain and Tenille
Some Scientology angel was looking out for Travolta, because he made a vast fortune just from appearing on the cover of both the Grease and Saturday Night Fever albums. They were beyond huge and sold consistently for years. But while the film of Saturday Night Fever was dingy and depressing in its lower-strata blue collar seediness, Grease was smartly moved the story out of the actual realm of the regular (misogynist/rapist) Italian-American guys in the post-greaser era, and into the sunny safety of Burbank, making the greaser haircuts and cigarettes and unwanted pregnancies little more than rich kid slumming. Fine with us, we in the suburbs didn't know the difference, only that the environment of Grease didn't make us want to kill ourselves from depression over graffiti and urban blight the way the movie of SNF did. On the other hand, the album of SNF was way better.

Anyway, it was a monster hit. And so why not merge the GREASE with the NIGHT and add the then-emerging roller disco craze? Throw in a fantasy element and an old duffer or two, and whammo! You do for the 40s big band zoot suit sound what GREASE had done for the 50s do wop.

That was the plan.... for XANADU! 
Terrible plan! 1980 was not 1978. And while he was great as Swan (from THE WARRIORS), Michael Beck was no Travolta, and he was not believable as a frustrated artist forced to reproduce album covers for a living (ala Travolta's frustrated dancer forced to tote paint cans in SNF). Olivia Newton John played the literal muse who inspires him and old duffer Gene Kelly joins forces with them both to open up a post-modern roller-rink, where time collapses and wartime big band sound collides in a roller skating accident with ELO, the Tubes, and lots of static long shots where you can see the edges of the sets and the studio darkness all around the backdrop.

Just compare the two stills below - the top one from DOWN TO EARTH, a 1947 comedy musical that XANADU more or less remade, notice the inept blocking of XANADU's shot, which leaves a ton of dead space at the right and left of the backdrop, leaving the widescreen shot looking inept in every detail.

(below: Xanadu - What were you, blocked in a barn?)
You can smell the weird blend of child-friendliness, coded homosexuality, old character actors eking out a living in cameos, nearly empty sets, and cocaine. Xanadu took all the ingredients that made these sorts of musicals uniquely ahead of and behind their time (at the same time), and swished them together like a Hail Mary from a terrified Iron Chef contestant. ELO and The Tubes jam unsuccessfully with a Glenn Miller-style ghost ensemble and Olivia sings "Forget about the blues / tonight!" --it's like a TV remote control battle between your older brother and grandmother, yanking the dial between Lawrence Welk and Soul Train while your parents are off playing bridge.
Top: New York, New York (1977); 1941 (1979)
Even today it's hard to imagine what they were thinking, presuming if the 30s worked in the early 70s, just move to the 40s as the decade ends. The mishmash of styles in Xanadu could have been meant to tie-in with the expected blockbuster success of Spielberg's zoot suit-encrusted mega-shrillfest 1941 which came out the year before, and Scorsese's big band ego-fest, New York, New York (1977). But that was the wrong horse to bet on. While 1941 was not a total flop it wasn't a hit either, and neither was NY, NY -- and for the first time since he broke big, Spielberg had laid a non-golden egg and Scorsese's critical darling status was stopped dead in its tracks.

What happened in a sense was America's taste in retro memories was flattening out. The age of three channel TV was ending, and with it the need for 'variety' shows that appealed to children, the elderly, and adults all at the same time. And without long hair and sleaze to produce rock gravity, the empty glitz of disco was just another toot up nostalgia's porous straw. By the time it got to us, disco had become sexless, leaving us with no choice to find the stuff straight from the source.

And so it was that, as children, our interest in sex was rekindled with the rise of the VCR.

Among other things the VCR brought a chance for us all--parents and kids alike-- to finally see X-rated movies. As with any huge sea change, the censors and critics need time to catch up and for awhile, freedom reigned and for awhile every child above 12 saw all there was to see, all at once. Our first rental ever, in the afternoon one day while my dad was out of town, was Clockwork Orange. I'd never even seen nudity outside of the occasional Playboy. All that aversion therapy violence Alex is subject to was very apropos to how flattened the movie left me (13 years-old), as well as my brother (ten), and our mom watching it in the middle of a Saturday.  Censorship had chastened TV for so long we felt protected from anything it could deliver on our invulnerable home screen , so we weren't about to admit any of the ultra-violence phased us. But looking back I'm confident that the huge paranoia witch hunt outcry against pedophiles and Satanic child molestation ring that began around the same time was no doubt inspired by parents and children finally seeing--together--all those films we'd been afraid to see at the drive-in or inner city theater back in the day. In the 70s we had never been ashamed of our bodies or our desires, perhaps because we just never really saw them so nakedly depicted.

You're dead sons, get yourself buried: Sgt. Peppers, Can't Stop the Music
So that's why now XANADU seems so hopelessy cheesy and antiquated in 1980. Old people--as embodied by Gene Kelly--were supposed to now be cool? Everyone was invited to the roller rink, ala GREASE inviting us to the 50s diner, drive-in, and hairdresser, but we didn't want to go to the roller rink. Still, in loyalty to GREASE (which I saw three times at different birthday parties), we dutifully trudged as massive multiple family packs to see XANADU, and then fell asleep. While the older kids were disappearing into midnight showings of THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME (1976) we in the too young for R category had (also) dutifully seen SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (above, 1978) starring the Bee-Gees, but that was at the drive in, so if something sucked you just got out of the car and rode on the swings and then alater fell asleep in the back seat. XANADU we saw in the theater, so there was no escape.

When we emerged from XANADU, sick from popcorn and Olivia Newton John sweetener, we found the world had changed. Disco was dead, crushed in the roller rink stampede (for a brief period, the roller derby and roller skating movie was super popular). Rock and roll would mutate into hair metal with the rise of cable and MTV, but disco was over. Cocaine gives you a terrible hangover... and you can see a little of it in Olivia Newton John's sickly yellow aura and devil eyes below. Surely we could do better... we needed to renounce our sins! We needed to 'phone home...' and ET was summoned.

Meanwhile, Alan Carr--one of the key figures behind  GREASE (and on Broadway, LA CAGE AU FOLLES), had troubles of his own, namely a huge disco flop centered around the Village People, Bruce Jenner, Nancy "You're soaking in it" Walker, hottie Valerie Perrine and struggling songwriter (and tight white pants enthusiast) Steve Gutenberg, known as CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC (1980). Like XANADU it cost $20 million, but bombed even worse. And in the case of both of them there's very little of that money visible on the screen. Sure there's dancing and glitz but the blocking, pacing, and acting are a mess. I'm just speculating, based largely on a book I'm reading about Carr, but I'd venture to guess where a lot of that 20 million went, and it certainly wasn't into hiring a good DP, editor, art designer, choreographer or continuity editor. Nothing translates more poorly to film than a hack's sweaty coke-fueled ego trip delusions of spectacle.

On the other hand, this was still the age of multi-generational 'family entertainment' - variety shows on all the major networks. And the people with the kids and $$ to buy tickets remembered fondly the 50s. Any further back and no one really cared, except old people who got senior citizen discounts anyway so they didn't impact the box office. The days of romancing a past decade with music and glamor were over, at least until the 90s when suddenly the 70s looked like the last great, free unprotected moment America was ever going to have.


  1. Keep it going, Erich. I want to see that tangent reach all the way to Heaven's Gate.

    1. thank you my brother... it's on its way, and Hallelujah


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