Somewhere along the way, Xanadu got the exoneration never accorded its 1980 sisters in shame: Can’t Stop the Music and The Apple. All three were foolhardy, end-of-disco musicals that tried to herald the music of the future by hewing painfully close to the suddenly passé past, but their reputations have certainly diverged in the meantime. Can’t Stop the Music can now be looked at as an almost charming (if idiotic) snapshot of the few moments in the gay movement where it really appeared there was nothing but smooth sailing ahead—before disco died, AIDS emerged and the Moral Majority annexed American politics. Apple has faded into an obscurity that now can’t be blamed on its unavailability; the DVD release a few years ago revealed it as an irritating, crypto-reactionary sham. None of these films, however, have experienced as radical an about-face as Xanadu, thanks to a canny Broadway adaptation that emphatically recasts the movie as knowing camp.
Xanadu, probably the most reviled of the three at the time (though that’s like saying Hitler was more loathed than Stalin), is a jolly remake of Down to Earth in which a platinum muse (Olivia Newton-John) inspires a dreamer artist (Michael Beck) to collaborate with a down on his luck big-band legend (Gene Kelly) on an innovative club bringing the 1980s together with the 1940s. So while the soundtrack is evenly split between Newton-John ballads and power-pop from ELO, neither of which sounded particularly revolutionary at the turn of the decade, Xanadu‘s collage of musical styles and fads inadvertently suggests the utopia of post-disco no wave, hip-hop’s emerging legacy of sampling and the DIY spirit of mash-ups. (I mean, if you want to be kind.)
While the movie is every bit as garish and overly shellacked as the other bomb musicals of its era (also including The Wiz and Tommy), at least this one looks like irresponsible amounts of money were thrown around. Can’t Stop the Music, in comparison, cost about as much and looks like a musical episode of The Love Boat directed by John Cassavetes. Ultimately, Xanadu is the ideal sort of camp masterpiece, one that (as Susan Sontag stipulated) naïvely revels in its own essence because it doesn’t have the foggiest clue of just how ridiculous it is, a point driven home by the hyperventilating Broadway production.
I’m fairly certain that at least half the audience of the stage version are dropping their $85 not so much to revel in the sheer Xanadu-ness of it all but rather to get an up-close-and-personal glimpse of Cheyenne Jackson’s engorged, glistening thighs just barely encased within the frayed confines of his skin-tight jeans shorts. The show flings its kitsch straight to the back row, letting everyone otherwise hypnotized by Jackson’s lickable calves in on the joke that the stage version knows how “bad” the movie version is. Fuck that, I say. The movie’s magic might be too polished and professional for most bad movie connoisseurs’ comfort, but at least it risks the embarrassment the stage version subverts via the confident ka-ching of Broadway beefcake.