I’m not influential on Twitter. Most of my Tweets are irreverent notes to self like, “I don’t remember putting on deodorant this morning,” which are seen by about five people. But in July 2016, I tweeted the Rio Theatre in Vancouver, “When can I expect to see Xanadu on that big screen?” And to my surprise they replied, “This is totally doable.”
A week later, Olivia Newton-John’s face was shining like a million dancing lights on the theatre’s page announcing an upcoming screening. I immediately texted my friend Bill who never missed an opportunity to remind he’d never seen the film: “Xanadu is coming to The Rio. We’re going. My treat.”
If you’re like Bill and have never seen Xanadu, it’s about a muse named Kira, who is sent by her father Zeus to inspire a scrappy graphic artist and a clarinet-playing real estate developer to fulfill the dream they never had of opening a roller disco. Kira betrays Zeus and falls in love with the artist despite the fact he’s a stalker, and there’s no chemistry between them whatsoever. It’s basically an MGM musical filmed through a disco lens that is remembered mostly for its soundtrack and killing the genre.
The first time I saw Xanadu was with my sister MJ, at the Shoppers World cinema in Brampton, Ontario. I had worshiped MJ when I was a pre-pubescent homo in the ’70s. She had long Cher hair that went to her waist and wore earth shoes and bell bottoms like Marcia Brady. I don’t know if MJ suspected I was gay, but she knew she could count on me for a sympathetic ear when she wanted to talk about Donny Osmond.
In my tweens I became MJ’s unofficial little sister, after all of our older sisters were married off. She lent me her paperback copies of Valley of the Dolls, The Thorn Birds and Scruples, which we analyzed at length. Dad would only let MJ go to the movies if she took me along, so I’d pretend to protest when she “dragged” me to chick flicks like Ice Castles and Coal Miner’s Daughter which I loved more than she did. But neither of those films held a candle to Grease.
Grease was perfection in our eyes — the motherlode of everything that was missing from our dreary Portuguese-Catholic lives: music, romance and magic. So when we saw the trailer for Xanadu during a TV commercial break for The Love Boat, we just about shit our pants.
Hollywood had been trying to capitalize on the success of Grease (1977) with a string of cheesy musicals, starting with Robert Stigwood’s 1978 Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, starring Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees, followed by The Wiz with Diana Ross as Dorothy in 1978 and and culminating in Can’t Stop the Music with Village People and Caitlyn Jenner which had been released two months earlier in June 1980. All three had flopped at the box office. Xanadu was going to change all that.
If the nearly-empty Shopper’s World cinema was any indication, MJ and I were among the only people counting down the days for Xanadu to open.
“I guess people aren’t coming to the mall to see movies anymore ever since the multiplex opened on Kennedy Road,” MJ pointed out, oblivious that the film had been universally panned by the critics.
The Rio Theatre was nearly as empty as the Shopper’s World cinema when I took Bill to see it, 37 years later. Watching Xanadu as a middle-aged gay man, I struggled to comprehend why MJ and I liked it so much. I remember being bored during the scenes with Gene Kelly when I saw it in 1980, but in 2016 I just felt sorry for him because it was one of his last movies.
After the song “Don’t Walk Away” ended, I envisioned all three of the film’s writers coming up from a line of coke and having the exact same thought: “We need an animated sequence!”
I love Xanadu for its campy ’80 vibe, but I never fully appreciated its lisping production design until dragging Bill to the Rio Theatre to see it. Now I know how all those teenage girls from the ’80s must have felt when they found out George Michael was gay in the ’90s.
There’s a scene near the end of the movie, where Sonny, played by Michael Beck (who was hot off The Warriors), is wearing a pair of crotch-hugging red Adidas shorts with white piping, a button down Hawaiian shirt, striped socks like the ones sold at American Apparel and roller skates. The outfit triggered a flashback to a very explicit dirty magazine called Roller Sex my friends and I used to pass around in grade school.
I began to wonder whatever happened to that filthy magazine, and if I could find a pair of those Adidas shorts at a secondhand store, when Bill leaned across the armrest and whispered, “That outfit is the basis of your entire wardrobe.” Then he sat bolt upright in his seat like he’d been struck by lighting and announced, “Oh my God! You’re a Xanadude!”
At first I was hurt and offended by Bill’s new nickname for me. But then I remembered how much MJ and I had in common with Kira, Olivia Newton John’s character. We wanted to obey our father’s strict rules and traditions, but we longed to experience true love and headbands. That’s when I realized my fondness for Xanadu had nothing to do with the film, and everything to do with how much I loved my sister for allowing me to be gay for a couple of hours.
“You’re right!” I said. “I am a Xanadude!” And then the guy behind us asked if we would mind keeping it down.
I remember MJ and I floating out of the theatre on streaks of neon light like Kira zipping around Santa Monica on her roller skates. To hear us rave about the movie, you would have thought it was the greatest thing since West Side Story. Here we were, a horny Catholic teenage virgin and her horny Catholic adolescent gay brother, having just had our nipples tweaked by the gayest thing since Bette Midler performed at the Continental Baths and we didn’t even know it.
I like to tease MJ that she made me gay because she treated me like the little sister she never had. She hates it because there’s a part of her that thinks it’s true. After seeing Xanadu again, I’m inclined to agree with her. In her defense, I was a willing participant.