“Magic,” the biggest hit from 1980’s Xanadu, is somewhat unheralded as an empowerment anthem. One of that year’s most popular songs, its slinky John Farrar guitar line lent itself to the narrative told by the film—which is, obviously, that Olivia Newton John’s character Kira is a daughter of Zeus come to life via a wall mural to fulfill her dreams of roller disco and getting it in with a hot artist named Sonny (Michael Beck, only slightly less brooding than his role as the titular gang leader in The Warriors).
“Magic” was crafted to soundtrack roller-rink love under strobe lights, but for its 35th anniversary this week, Newton-John has cut a dance remix with her real-life daughter, Chloe Lattanzi, herself a singer and actor. The Dave Audé-produced version is retitled “You Have to Believe” and recast in Las Vegas, which has since replaced Xanadu’s Los Angeles as the most uncanny city in America.
Lattanzi adds new lyrics to the familiar piano stabs and synth counter-rhythm, a juicy paean to love on the dancefloor—“You press your lips on mine/I pull your body close/don’t try to escape me”—but the video gives the track new context as well. Accompanied by two beefy shirtless male dancers in bow-ties, Lattanzi saunters through a club where performers in impersonator drag do their best Britney Spears, Tina Turner, Stephen Tyler, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and, I think, Dean Martin. It celebrates transformation, but Newton-John’s chorus is reimagined with more power here, too: “You have to believe we are magic/nothing can stand in our way. You have to believe we are magic/Don’t let your aim ever stray.” How many proms and graduations since 1980 have used this as their theme song? Hundreds, at least.
But while the video’s got Vegas camp on its side, Xanadu’s 35th anniversary is as good a time as any to remember that it is in fact one of the most pleasurably absurd films of the disco era, rivaling even The Warriors in camp factor, both of which showcased Michael Beck’s impressive range of furrowed brows.
Newton-John spends half the trailer outlined in a glowing neon aura, connoting her otherworldly status between musical numbers that include a strange wartime jingle with Gene Kelly:
Olivia Newton-John magically materializing from a concrete wall:
And an epic outro that, in parts, now seems almost proto-Beyoncé (that tigress rock number!).
In 1980, Roger Ebert seethed:
Xanadu is a mushy and limp musical fantasy, so insubstantial it keeps evaporating before our eyes. It’s one of those rare movies in which every scene seems to be the final scene; it’s all ends and no beginnings, right up to its actual end, which is a cheat.
Ebert also said that “one reason to see Xanadu” is that “Olivia Newton-John is a great looking woman,” which proves that his opinion on this movie was bullshit! (She is a great looking woman, but fuck that.) Nothing casts a good light on bad art so much as time, and in the 35 years since its release, Xanadu has become a cult classic, as revered for its alleged badness as for its unlikely plot line—postmodernism wasn’t as advanced in 1980 as it was even 15 years later, and in this current era of megalithic pop imagery, CGI as ethos and photoshop as religion, Ebert’s then-accusation that Xanadu felt like “a shopping list of marketable pop images” sounds laughably naive.
Besides, there’s a certain aesthetic relevance in eye candy, even if the choreography is negligible. Xanadu is retro but watching it is not an ironic exercise; it’s a study in the methods of fantasy-making in a time when Hollywood Light & Magic specialists had to get their hands dirtier. Those neon lights emanating from Newton-John are delightfully janky but also totally dazzling—proto-rave fashion for the party-on-wheels set. (In 1980, Billboard reported that a series of Xanadu-themed boutiques opened in New York City, and sold clothing modeled on the costumes in the film, a bit of marketing genius ahead of its time [and also I want some].)
The soundtrack, which was largely composed by Electric Light Orchestra aka ELO, sounds as glossy as the airbrushed cover art looked: gleaming, voluminous, AquaNetted to oblivion. “The kind of ethereal music,” Newton-John told the Associated Press at the time, songs that “we hope, will be the songs of the ‘80s.” The 1980s were a damn long era defined by swift change in the music business—MTV debuted in ‘81, for one thing—but if anything captures the moment between innocent debauchery and full-on gluttony the decade became, it’s the Xanadu enterprise. Hail the Zeus in the wall.