ELO’s ‘Xanadu’ Soundtrack With ON-J: Magic, All Over the World

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There are so many divergent feelings about Xanadu the film and Xanadu the music soundtrack; no scientific algorithm exists to separate the two hemispheres. With regard to the film, factually it was a disaster and it literally inspired the creation of the Golden Raspberry Awards (aka the Razzies), recognizing the worst films of the year.

What set the movie’s egregious attempt at storytelling apart from what Roger Ebert called “a mushy and limp musical fantasy” was the soundtrack. On the surface (and for practical purposes), side one of the album was a showcase for the movie’s star, Olivia Newton-John (coming off her blockbuster role in Grease) and side two consisted of tunes from Electric Light Orchestra. The album did not, however, include every song shown in the film, but what transpired, luckily, was a galaxy of worldwide sales.

Olivia Newton-John in Xanadu (YouTube screen shot)

While it has since earned cult classic status, the premise of the movie musical is thus: Olivia Newton-John as the Greek goddess Terpsichore/Kira falls for a skating, freelance artistic hunk named Sonny, encouraging him to open a 1940s style nightclub called Xanadu. Mix in roller-disco, Gene Kelly, the Tubes and a few animated portions. Confused? Everyone not appearing in the film thought so, too.

Watch the trailer for the Xanadu film

Taken on its own, the lead-off song, “Magic,” was a worldwide success, earning Newton-John her fourth #1 single in the U.S. at its May 1980 release. The singer’s frequent collaborator and producer John Farrar had been working with her since 1971, so it was no surprise that the mixture of come-hither echoing vocals and persuasive delivery propelled it to the top of the charts and would prove prophetic for Newton-John’s incarnation as a sexy workout instructor the following year.

“The mellow arrangement and lush orchestration are a perfect backdrop for the two voices,” was the assessment from Billboard on the ballad “Suddenly,” the Newton-John/Cliff Richard duet and the album’s second track. Given the combined wattage of talent, it’s curious that this is their only recording and, on top of that, was a tune that appears as a lyrical narrative for the heroine and her suitor at a skating rink.

Richard explained the origin of the duet on the U.K. talk show Loose Women in 2023: “Olivia called me and said, ‘Look, I’m doing this movie and unfortunately my co-star doesn’t sing…’ And I’m going ‘Yes’ and of course, she said, ‘Would you come over and sing it with me?’ I would normally say, ‘Please send me the track’…you can’t record songs you don’t like…but I didn’t bother. I went across and recorded it in the engineer’s garage so every now and then we’d have to stop when a truck went by.” The song was definitely an improvement over her 1971 wordless cameo appearance with Richard for his cover of the Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four” on the U.K. special Get Away With Cliff.

Showcasing the inspired (read: head-scratching) collaboration with the Tubes, “Dancin’” was a cross-genre mix of Newton-John delivering a big band number while the Tubes lead vocalist Fee Waybill came screaming in midway with a typical over-the-top rock interpretation. The tune was meant to convey the reality/dream of the Xanadu nightclub’s origin, but out of context, it’s a bizarre pairing. It’s the weirdest mash-up to watch visually and would have been better served as a straight-up Tubes performance.

“Suspended In Time” is as generic a ballad as they come, and laughingly awe-inspiring in a way with the film’s heavy-handed graphics and glow around Newton-John as she pines for her man. Conclusion: best taken in micro-doses.

However, the side one closer is pure nostalgia, and a heartfelt valentine to Gene Kelly’s final film role. The musical number “Whenever You’re Away From Me” was an original from Farrar and featured Kelly and Newton-John dancing in the kind of moviemaking genre that was a highwater mark from his glory days in MGM musicals. His performance, though, is best served on the screen in a tribute to what many consider to be a true legend whose athletic ability still shone brightly at the young age of 67.

Related: Our review of a 2017 Olivia Newton-John concert

Side two was ELO’s spotlight, commencing with the opening track “I’m Alive,” also released as a single in May 1980. A pure energy nugget that is on par with every Jeff Lynne production, the song was the audience’s introduction to the Terpsichore/Kira character, but stood on its own musically and was a top 20 hit on the U.S. Billboard charts. The following track, “The Fall,” was a convenient link for the Sonny character to enter the other world of Xanadu and therefore utterly forgettable.

“Don’t Walk Away” suffers only for the fact that the visual accompaniment is an animated sequence from Don Bluth, well-known for his work at Disney Animation Studios and who would go on to create The Secret of NIMH and An American Tail. But weighed as a song, it serves no other purpose than what it was intended for in the film.

In 2022, Lynne listed “All Over the World” as one of his favorite ELO songs and it’s not hard to see why, given his penchant for composing numbers with a throwback/jukebox flavor. Again, it’s better shown in context with the sequence in the film which, although cheesy, is a lovely four minutes of Kelly dressing up, dancing and generally having a blast.

The soundtrack’s closer, “Xanadu,” is a bombastic, anthemic collaboration with Newton-John, endlessly reminding the listener that love conquers all, especially when you sprinkle in a liberal dusting of tears, neon lights and a warning not to “go there!” Lynne dismissed it years later and who could blame him, considering the film’s original concept as a low-budget roller-disco film gave the term bad filmmaking new meaning? The upside? The album, released on June 27, 1980, reached #4 on the Billboard Albums chart (and #1 on Record World and in numerous countries all over the world). It was turned into a Tony-nominated Broadway musical in 2007. As history often notes, you can’t keep a good thing down. Especially in Xanadu.

The soundtrack is available in the U.S. here and in the U.K. here. You can stream the movie here. Lynne has announced his “Over and Out” tour for 2024, billed as his last. Tickets are available here and here.

Amy Hughes

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  1. 122intheshade
    #1 122intheshade 6 July, 2024, 17:33

    Never saw the movie. But I LOVED the soundtrack. Great music. At least the hits.

    If MTV had been around just a bit earlier, the wonderful “All Over the World” might have pulled the movie to a stronger finish. Or not.

    As a standalone music video, “AOTW” might not be “Singin’ in the Rain”, but it is a lot of fun. Reminds me of the Cary Grant movie “Walk, Don’t Run”.

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