Xanadu – Olivia Newton-John And The Place Nobody Dared To Go


I know of fervent movie fans who play out elaborate rituals before their favourite films. Prom dresses and pigs’ blood for Carrie, chain smoking in the shower and Benzedrine for All That Jazz. And don’t even think about Single White Female.

Xanadu (1980) is one of those movies that never quite achieved its full potential, a coulda’ been shoulda’ been masterpiece, a disappointing sum of numerous wonderfully satisfying parts. It’s a musical that is the glittering wrapping around a grand love story set against a 70s roller disco backdrop.

The best way to fully appreciate this criminally under-rated slice of movie magic is to dress the part: leg warmers and roller skates, the old style not the in-line, and something acrylic and flowing. Natural fibres just won’t give you the same feeling.

Roll up the flokati rug to expose the bare boards. A large unencumbered viewing space is a necessity especially for the final, glorious dance scene when you must skate with your arms stretched above you, wrists crossed, lycra-sheathed hips bumping out the sensuous disco beat, your entire body held straight and proud. Beware of small, enclosed spaces. There’s nothing so humiliating than being in the midst of a major dance number and sprawling across a nest of coffee tables.

The beating heart of Xanadu is Australia’s darling, Olivia Newton-John, known proudly throughout the length and breadth of that great brown land as Our Livvy. Australia has always adhered to a carefully-qualified paraphrasing of the “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” ethos except in this case it’s more akin to “give me your Grammy-winning, Golden Globe-grabbing, Oscar-adorating, million-seller masses from across the oceans and we’ll make them our own”.

Thus, Our Livvy was born in England but, more importantly for our celebrity-embracing culture, settled in Australia with her family at the age of five. The roll call of Australia’s adopted entertainers include Andy Gibb and the Bee Gees (born in England); AC/DC (England and Scotland); The Easybeats (England, Scotland and the Netherlands); Jimmy Barnes and John Paul Young (Scotland); Split Enz, Crowded House, Dragon and Russell Crowe (New Zealand), and Nicole Kidman and Mel Gibson (United States). The best Australia can rightfully claim as their own is one half of Air Supply.

Through the 70s, Olivia Newton-John was a recording sensation, topping the charts worldwide with such hits as If Not For You, Banks Of The Ohio and I Honestly Love You before breaking into the movie big-time with her stellar turn as the squeaky-clean good girl out to snare bad boy John Travolta in Grease (1978).

The hits continued and it seemed as if she could do no wrong. She was attached to Xanadu before there was even a script, not that one actually appeared until well into the shooting schedule.

Our Livvy is cast as Terpsichore, one of the daughters of Zeus and a muse, a goddess who inspires creativity in mortals. In modern day Los Angeles is artist Sonny Malone (Michael Beck), who earns his living from turning record covers into giant advertising murals and fears he will never find his true creative calling.

“Sometimes I see more in the covers than what is really there,” he says tellingly; deep inside, he knows that in the right circumstances he could be the da Vinci of promotional painting. But he anguishes over his craft. “Guys like me shouldn’t dream anyway.”

As an aside, this seques beautifully with a comment I overhead recently at a TEDx conference where two trend spotters were discussing Xanadu. One said: “At its core, Xanadu seeks to examine the deepening chasm between continental and analytic philosophy up to and including Hegel, the emphasis on metaphilosophy on one hand and its repudiation by the continentals and the development of the logical positivist approach on the other; in particular, and it’s a question Wittgenstein agonised over until late in his career, should leg warmers ever really be paired with lycra?”

At the lowest point in Sonny’s artistic journey, Terpsichore and her eight muse sisters spring from a wall on the Venice boardwalk. In a flowing white peasant dress with ribbons decorating her blonde hair, she decides it more prudent to disguise herself lest she be confused with the numerous other muses already flooding Los Angeles and adopts the name Kira.

She straps on a pair of roller skates, leaving her sisters behind to dance to a rock-symphonic Electric Light Orchestra number in an alley and goes in search of Sonny. Her virginal beauty, thick Australian accent and habit of answering questions with more questions while skating in circles, beguiles and inspires Sonny.

Later, Sonny meets up with a clarinet player, Danny Maguire (Gene Kelly). Danny was a featured player in Glenn Miller’s big band in the 1940s but gave up music after loving and losing the girl of his dreams (a dance sequence between Our Livvy and Gene Kelly reveals that girl to be Kira only he doesn’t appear to recognise her; time and bedevilling disappointment has coloured his memories to a fetching shade of Alzheimer’s).

Sonny and Danny set out to find a venue in which to open a disco. Kira magically leads Sonny to the cavernous Pan Pacific Auditorium, a real-life Art Deco landmark located in the Fairfax district near Farmers Market. (It burnt down in 1989, something of a metaphor for the film itself.)

While debating a name for their new club, Kira suggests Xanadu, which implies either she was also a muse to Coleridge or that the lending library on Mount Olympus is unusually comprehensive. When Sonny declares his eternal love for Kira, she discloses her true identity and says they can never be together.

Skating the gravel-pocked pavement of true love, Kira and Sonny fall desperately in love; he travels to the alleyway mural at Venice Beach and leaps through into Mount Olympus which looks like a cross between an empty stage set and Tron, where he implores Zeus for Kira’s hand.

It looks like his quest will be in vain. He returns to the real world in time for Xanadu’s opening where Danny, Sonny and Kira skate in circles for the final dance number leading a cast of hundreds of colourfully-dressed guests; it’s an explosion of satin shorts, feathered hairstyles, lycra, jersey dresses, body shirts, undulating hips, and leg warmers.

Just when all seems hopeless with Danny broken-hearted amidst the celebrations, a waitress who bears a startling resemblance to Kira brings him a drink. Double-take on Sonny’s part and fade out.

On release, the movie bombed badly; one magazine reviewed it with the unnecessarily harsh:  “In a word – Xana-don’t”. The soundtrack, however, with such numbers as Xanadu, Magic and Suddenly, with writing credits split between ELO and long-time Livvy collaborator, John Farrar, charted well.

It’s difficult to know exactly where it went wrong. Our Livvy and Gene Kelly were absolute delights. Michael Beck, with an acting style as wooden as Pinocchio, much less so, although he’d just come off the cult hit, The Warriors (1979), and was considered a hot property. Beck’s passing resemblance to singer Andy Gibb has since created some confusion and many still think it’s Our Livvy and Andy Gibb together in Xanadu; the combination is certainly worth entertaining.

There were also reports from the set that the script was constantly being rewritten throughout production; by the time shooting wrapped, there were six different versions of the script.

Overall, though, Xanadu remains a delight, even if it’s somewhat of a guilty pleasure. It is one of the most comprehensively satisfying movies of the disco genre, just slightly above  Can’t Stop The Music (and that’s saying something, although I’m not quite sure what) and Thank God It’s Friday.

With so many fans and so much timeless attention lavished on this paean to love and artistic inspiration, Olivia Newton-John and roller disco, Xanadu will remain a muse to all its fans.

Words © David Latta

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Both Kinds of Movie: Robert Altman’s Nashville


In the 70s, before the accountants took over Hollywood and the merits of a film came to be judged largely by its opening weekend gross, there occurred a vivid flowering of cinematic creativity.  Scorsese, Coppola, Peckinpah and more rode the monster surf of the American New Wave but none were more audacious than Robert Altman.

After honing his craft as a documentarian, short film maker and director of television shows, he burst onto the scene in 1970 with the vibrantly shambolic MASH. The green light glowed above subsequent projects and there followed such critically-acclaimed, though less successful, films as McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), Thieves Like Us (1974) and California Split (1974).

By mid-way through the decade, Altman had cemented a reputation both as a visionary film stylist and a perfectionist who would not be cowed by studios or producing partners. Yet scripts continued to flow his way. In 1975, he was approached to direct a film about the country music industry, intended as the debut vehicle of Welsh singer, Tom Jones. Altman, in his characteristic go-to-hell manner, kept the city and dumped the script and star.

The result was Nashville, undoubtedly Altman’s masterpiece, a bold and enterprising delight that just gets better with each viewing. Richly detailed, the foundation was a screenplay by fledgling writer Joan Tewkesbury, responsible for Thieves Like Us. Altman had sent Tewkesbury off to Nashville to scout out suitable storylines. In collaboration with Altman, the resulting script juggled 24 main characters, weaving the entertainment industry and a growing preoccupation with celebrity into the souring of a nation’s spirit by Vietnam and Watergate.

Altman traditionally drew upon a group of regular players for his films and many were earmarked for Nashville. Some early casting selections, however, didn’t play out. Louise Fletcher was the original choice to play Linnea Reese, conservative housewife and mother of two deaf children; Fletcher’s parents were deaf and she had grown up using sign language, experience that Altman incorporated into the final script.

When Fletcher dropped out to play Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (for which she won an Academy Award), she was replaced by Lily Tomlin. Haven Hamilton, vanguard of Nashville’s country music royalty, was earmarked for Robert Duvall; Henry Gibson, like Lily Tomlin, better known as a comedian on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In, took the role and made it his own, down to a hairpiece that seems fashioned from a slumbering Ewok.

Gary Busey was an early casting choice for Tom, the priapic and emotionally distant folk singer which was eventually played by Keith Carradine. Bernadette Peters and Bette Midler both turned down the role of blowsy country music wannabe Albuquerque.

Altman allowed his actors to comprehensively inhabit their characters without censure. Considering a script more of a blueprint than gospel, he requested they improvise their own dialogue as well as write their own songs. His trust was usually well placed.

Jan Stuart, author of The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece (Simon & Schuster, 2000), told of an actor asking Altman whether he’d be in a close-up or a two-shot. “What makes you think you’re on camera at all? Altman replied. “When I say “Action”, just live your life. I’ll either see you or I won’t.”

Henry Gibson takes the Ewok for a walk

Some, like Gibson, stayed in character for the entire two month shoot. And a lot of the most memorable moments came not from Altman regulars but newcomers such as neophyte Ronee Blakely, portraying fragile country singer Barbara Jean, based on Loretta Lynn. Blakely wrote four of her own songs as well as the complex rambling monologue for her tragic on-stage emotional breakdown.

The women have the best roles in this film, facilitated by Tewkesbury’s script and Altman’s relish of female points of view. The result is a range of fascinating moral ambiguities; we may not agree with the choices made by many of the characters but we are constantly enthralled and care about them all the same.

Nashville plays towards a final major set piece organised around a political rally. We never see the candidate but, just as it seems the plot will culminate in a political assassination, it all gets turned on its head and one of the performers becomes the target of the opportunistic killer. In this, Altman was far ahead of his time in predicting celebrity assassinations; the quiet, owlish loner who wields the gun bears a disquietening resemblance to Mark David Chapman who, five years after Nashville’s release, would gun down John Lennon.

Another of Altman’s daring experiments was in the area of sound recording, creatively blending several conversations at once to propel plot and character development. Altman used technician Jim Webb, who had learned his craft on music documentaries such as Mad Dogs and Englishmen (1971) and later worked with Altman on Thieves Like Us.

Webb hooked radio microphones to each of the major players in a scene and recorded their dialogue onto individual sound tracks via an eight-track system. Altman could then mix the sound to his exacting standards during the editing process. The disappointment was that, given this revolutionary process, Nashville didn’t get an Oscar nomination in the sound category.

At the end of the two-month shoot, Altman had more than 200,000 feet of film, coming in at about 16 hours of footage. When it seemed that one movie wouldn’t be big enough for his vision, he briefly toyed the idea with creating two films, Nashville Red and Nashville Blue. This didn’t get beyond the planning stage, nor did a television mini-series utilising the extra footage. Decades later, a sequel to Nashville, reprising many of the major characters, was also stillborn.

As it was, the final cut of Nashville ran 2 hours and 40 minutes. Although the critics once again loved it (Pauline Kael of The New Yorker previewed a rough cut in a lengthy review that ran three months before the premiere, calling it “a radical, evolutionary leap” and “the ultimate Altman movie”), it made just $US7 million at the American box office (on a $US2.2 million budget). It wasn’t babka but it also wasn’t the return to financial form that had been predicted.

Altman would spend the next 15 years wandering the cinematic wastelands with ever-decreasing budgets and success until the career-replenishing double-whammy of The Player and Short Cuts in the early 90s.

Nashville, however, remains his great classic, a movie that repays every favour it asks of an audience and is as fresh and inventive as it appeared 35 years ago.

Words © David Latta

Karaoke Chaos in Kyoto


Those who stand out from the crowd in Japan are quite happy, even eager, to pose for the camera as the above readily illustrates. And while this observation has little to do with the intended subject, at least it gives me an opening photograph.

At the risk of sounding obtuse, maybe it does, in a weird, disjointed way, lead into one of my pet aversions – karaoke. For a culture that has given the world so many of my favourite things, including Astro Boy, Godzilla, Shintaro and Tombei The Mist, and the wonderful dripping world woodcuts of Hiroshi Yoshida, karaoke almost balances the scales.

Although it is said that karaoke translates into “empty orchestra”, a far more honest meaning would be “ritualised humiliation”.

As an Australian male, I may have something of a natural inclination towards self-delusion but not when it comes to singing in public. I know I can’t sing. Never have and never will. That, however, doesn’t stop millions of other people from ignoring their inner voices and inflicting their limited vocal skills on others.

My first experience with karaoke was in Kyoto, as part of a multinational group inspecting conference facilities. One night, as a brief respite from visiting ballrooms that after eight hours all looked the same, we were invited to a traditional Noh performance. These days, anything described as a cultural experience, especially in Asia, will have me feigning smallpox and requesting immediate quarantine. Back then, however, I was young, eager to please and far too brave for my own good.

The Noh performance was, according to others, culturally enriching although it did seem to go on for days. There had been no dinner beforehand which only made it all the more interminable.

Afterwards, we were led to a small nightclub in the basement of an even smaller office building where we gathered around barrel-shaped tables on which were large bottles of beer, delicate china carafes of sake and glasses of strong Scotch and dry. Emotionally drained by jet lag and the events of the evening, we rapidly drained the table of alcohol. It was almost immediately replenished.

Each of the nationalities was encouraged to sing a song of their own culture. The English chose God Save The Queen, having been unable to find anything on the music list by Val Doonican.

The Americans, without a hint of irony, looked no further than The Star Spangled Banner. There’s no harder a song for amateurs to sing (aside perhaps for My Way which they bravely but unsuccessfully attempted later in the evening) and the result sounded very much like feeding time in an animal shelter as produced by Phil Spector.

Only the French emerged from the cultural trainwreck with any dignity intact. In a masterstroke of lateral thinking, they chose Je t’aime. The men flawlessly channelled Serge Gainsbourg, the women Brigitte Bardot (though, not, it should be noted in any physical sense).

The Australian group was last. I’d been flicking through the song list with increasing panic. Mercifully, Click Go The Shears, Advance Australia Fair and Home Among The Gumtrees were not included. Harsh circumstances called for desperate measures.

By the time the Australian group had been called to the stage, most had mysteriously disappeared. I searched under discarded coats and inside the barrel tables but they were nowhere to be found.

With only one other Australian, we mounted the stage. I introduced our song, explaining its complex cultural significance and how it was indicative of the Australian way of life, a song that spoke of our country’s rich history and vibrant personality.

The audience listened politely, if a little confused. There was a smatter of applause.

We than launched into the Theme From Rawhide.

Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’

Though the streams are swollin’

Keep those dogies movin’

Rawhide

The atmosphere could be described as quizzical, especially with my partner’s Norman Gunston-like acting out of the lyrics. There were cheers when I managed to improvise a kangaroo reference or two into the lyrics.

At the end of the song, some of the audience leapt to their feet but my gratitude lasted only until I realised it was the Italian group heading off to look for the cigarette machine.

As the evening progressed and fresh rounds of beer, sake and Scotch washed across the groups, the inhibitions, like the quality of the singing, dropped remarkably.

Even the Australians lay prone on the melodic altar of humiliation and begged for more. After a couple of particularly desperate yet endearingly enthusiastic interpretations of New York, New York, Feelings and The Pina Colada Song (welcome back to the blog, Rupert Holmes), my memory reached that point that occurs in all extreme trauma and blanked out.

It’s perhaps just as well.

Words and photos © David Latta

Recollections Of The Riot House


It’s said that you can never go home and, when it comes to Los Angeles history, it may well be the case. I get a certain sense of melancholy whenever I’m driving down Sunset Boulevard and I pass the Andaz West Hollywood for I both knew it in a previous life and know of it because it is one of rock music’s most famed and infamous locations.

The hotel originally opened in 1963 as the Gene Autry Hotel, owned by the Singing Cowboy of film and recording fame. Autry didn’t retain the hotel for long, selling it in 1966 at which time it was renamed the Continental Hyatt House. Over the next 30 years, it changed names to the Hyatt On Sunset and, later, the Hyatt West Hollywood. From the 60s, though, it had already started its sordid journey to musical Valhalla by way of the Twilight Zone.

It became the hotel of choice for touring rock bands, known as the Riot House to those in the know. Many of the truly extraordinary stories that developed are equal parts hard truth and colourful myth; separating one from the other is almost impossible these days as even those who were there were so mentally splayed by drink, drugs and excessive partying that they have only a nodding acquaintance with the reality. Like so much of popular culture, it’s often a matter of never letting the truth get in the way of a good story.

The Lizard King, the original rock’n’roll God known to mortals as Jim Morrison, slithered into the Hyatt in the 60s at the height of his unearthly powers. After months of excess, he was finally evicted after hanging from a top floor balcony by his fingertips.

In the 70s, it was the turn of such superstar acts as the Who, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Whether it was the Who’s unhinged drummer, Keith Moon, or the Stone’s pharmaceutically-challenged Keith Richards who first became bored enough to start redesigning the décor isn’t recorded but throwing televisions out hotel windows soon became a popular activity for rock musicians.

At the height of their fame in the 70s, Led Zeppelin would block-book up to six floors at a time. In scenes that would make Fellini’s Satyricon look like a Wiggles video, the band would drag race motorcycles in the hallways, trash their rooms and generally do things their mothers would never approve of.

I stayed there quite a few times in the 90s and clearly remember running into Little Richard, by that time a long-term resident. Despite being in his late 60s, I was always amazed to notice he had the complexion of a 30-year-old.

Across the road is the House of Blues, the restaurant and live music venue originally co-owned by actor Dan Ackroyd. It was there I had one of my most memorable brushes with fame. I’d spent the previous few days on hotel inspections throughout West Hollywood and had been invited to dinner at the House of Blues. Afterwards, I was in the top floor private members’ club having a drink when I noticed a man at the bar who seemed familiar. Not being able to place him but thinking he was one of the many hotel executives I’d talked to, I wander over for a chat.

After about half an hour of animated conversation, I said goodnight and went back to my hotel. In the middle of night, I woke up and realised I’d been discussing convention room measurements with Micky Dolenz of The Monkees.

The Hyatt On Sunset had a makeover a couple of years ago. The Andaz, aside from sounding like a Louisiana sausage, now resembles just about every other boutique hotel ever opened. The balconies have been glassed in, the furnishings are plushly luxurious, there are duvets and widescreen TVs and designer toiletries and you could easily wake up and wonder where in the world you are.

Management probably has a policy these days against racing motorcycles in the hallways and you can undoubtedly pitch a tent on the sidewalk and not have a television drop on your head. In all, the neighbourhood has gone to hell. Keith Richards probably wouldn’t recognise the place but, then again, is there anything he does recognise?

Photo courtesy of Hyatt Hotels

Words © David Latta