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  Directed by
  Starring
  Specs
  • Widescreen 1.85:1
  • 16:9 Enhanced
  Languages
  • English: Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround
  Subtitles
  • None
  Extras
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Photo gallery

Xanadu

Universal/Universal . R4 . COLOR . 92 mins . G . PAL

  Feature
Contract

The huge success of Moulin Rouge really shouldn’t have been a surprise - after all, throughout the history of mainstream film the romantic musical has been something of a mainstay. The big MGM musicals of the ‘30s and ‘40s and the lavish widescreen productions of the ‘60s brought the world of sung storytelling to successive generations, and by the late ‘70s yet another audience was about to be introduced to the musical - Grease, an ambitious film version of a successful stage show, was a massive hit and made a bona fide star out of Olivia Newton-John. It also generated a chart-conquering soundtrack album (everybody had a copy of Grease, it seemed) and several hit singles, those songs still played today. Suddenly Olivia was everywhere - on the radio, on television, even parodied on an episode of The Goodies. She was in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose what her next film would be. She chose Xanadu.

Initially conceived as a quick cash-in on the roller-disco craze of the late ‘70s, Xanadu was quickly expanded into something more ambitious when Newton-John signed on for the lead role and was joined by the legendary Gene Kelly in what would be his final screen role. Given a huge budget to play with, producers Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver - names that are a lot better known these days - turned the production into a free-form romantic fantasy-musical based on the vintage flick Down To Earth, no doubt working on the Grease Theory that if the plot’s not up to much, distract ‘em with hit songs and they’ll never notice. It nearly worked, too. Certainly at the time of its release Xanadu was a success with its target audience; what it lacked was any real substance. The script is silly, the acting is atrocious, some of the musical set-pieces are impossibly dumb - but when your reviewer saw the film at the somewhat less critically demanding age of 13, it all seemed utterly wonderful. Indeed, many people who saw Xanadu during its cinema run 22 years ago have watched the film for the first time in two decades and suddenly realised that it really wasn’t especially good. But remember, in 1980 roller-skating was still cool, ELO were still popular, Olivia was one of the biggest stars in the universe and people knew who Michael Beck was. Yes, it may have been a turkey of a movie. But it was our turkey, for better or worse.

The plot doesn’t need much describing. Frustrated/tortured artist Sonny (the aforementioned Michael Beck, who at the time was hot property after his role in The Warriors) knows he’s got genius in him, but the record company that he works for - painting giant replicas of album covers to hang outside stores - doesn’t understand that he’s an artist, man. When he tears up a sketch and throws it out his window, the bits of sketch decide to impersonate a flock of birds and migrate to an alleyway where a painting of the nine muses of the god Zeus happens to be hiding. Naturally, upon contact with the torn-up sketch the painting springs to life, and the muses, rotoscoped in radiant purple, strike up a dance routine before sending Kira (Newton-John) into the world to inspire Sonny - but not to be an artist. No, Kira has other plans, teaming Sonny up with old-time former muso Danny Maguire (Kelly) to open… a nightclub! A nightclub that mixes the cultures of the ‘40s and the ‘80s, no less, and named Xanadu (after the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem Kubla Khan, which appropriately was written while its author was high on opiates). However, Sonny is falling in love with Kira and vice-versa, Danny’s in love with a ghost who’s probably Kira as well, and it can all come to no good because Zeus is a fairly by-the-books kind of dad. In the midst of all this, there are the songs (five by ELO, five from Olivia’s regular producer/songwriter John Farrar), a guest appearance by The Tubes in full-scale “wacky” mode, and Gene Kelly of course gets to dance, happily outdoing the entire cast of dancers a quarter his age.

It all sounds rather silly. And that’s because it is - but with appropriate suspension of disbelief there’s some decidedly ‘80s fun to be had here. Many of the songs are excellent, too - the soundtrack album did better business than the movie, and the over-the-top title song is still well-known even today. But looking at Xanadu from a distance of 22 years - even with a forgiving eye - it's easy to see that there’s so much wrong here. Robert Greenwald’s direction is stodgy and flat, not helped by the myriad effects shots that were state-of-the-art back in 1979 when the film was in production. But without motion-control technology the camera cannot move during complex effects, and so intended showstoppers like the I’m Alive dance sequence at the top of the film suffer; it’s like watching a stage show from out in the car park, and during The Fall Greenwald seems to be stalling for time to fit the song in, leaving his lead actor to fart around doing not very much at all. The Don Bluth animation that’s inexplicably dropped into the middle of the film is pointless, and Gene Kelly on roller skates has to be seen to be believed.

This is not a movie for the cynical - in fact, we suspect Xanadu’s appearance on DVD has more to do with the fact that the kids who saw it back in 1980 are now all grown up and, like your hapless reviewer, consumed enough by fond nostalgia to hand over hard cash for the chance to go there again. It’s a seriously bad film, Xanadu. And I love every minute of it.

  Video
Contract

Xanadu was released in DVD in the US in July 1999, and at the time was quite a revelation. Here was a minor catalogue title that Universal had grabbed from its vaults and issued with little fanfare on disc, and yet the picture quality was remarkably good - better, in fact, than many better-loved films of similar vintage released on DVD at the time. It wasn’t without its problems, but those were due to the material that was at hand; the many optical effects shots in the film display dramatically increased grain and a fair bit of film damage as well, something that is an unfortunate by-product of the limited technology that was available when the movie was made. Universal had obviously vaulted the film’s negatives very carefully and had done a marvellous new video transfer of the film for DVD, but not surprisingly stopped short of spending big dollars on digitally cleaning up the opticals. It didn’t matter - Xanadu had never looked this good, even in cinemas. Fans were well pleased.

Two and a half years later, the region 4 release of the film on DVD springs another pleasant surprise on us. Though obviously sourced from the same telecine transfer session as the US disc, some work appears to have been done on smoothing out the grain in the more troublesome areas of the picture. Helped by the increased resolution of PAL and by a more generous compression bitrate, this transfer looks more vibrant than the R1 equivalent, with finer detail visible and better colour resolution.

Presented at its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and 16:9 enhanced, this is about as good as a video transfer of Xanadu is going to get; aside from the aforementioned optical effects shots, the image here is crisp, clean, detailed and surprisingly unaffected by the colour and contrast problems that usually plague movies of this vintage. Yes, you’ll see grain, and yes, you’ll see film “artefacts”. This ain’t Lawrence Of Arabia, after all, and a full restoration couldn’t possibly be justified. But it looks fine, and the PAL version is of noticeably better quality than the original R1 disc.

  Audio
Contract

It’s all good news in the video quality department; sadly, the news isn’t good at all when it comes to the audio track.

The R1 disc floored people who cared for another reason apart from the video transfer - Universal had gone to the trouble of digging out the masters for the 4-track magnetic soundtrack that gave the movie such an audio edge in larger cinemas (in Australia the 4-track prints were brought in later; initially the film screened with mono sound), and had it transferred to four discrete channels on the DVD as a Dolby Digital 4.0 stream. The 4-track magnetic format offered vastly improved sound quality as well as the benefits of four discrete channels - Left, Centre, Right and Surround - but made prints prohibitively expensive compared to a standard optical soundtrack; with the advent of digital, of course, the format is no longer used. And there on the R1 DVD was that 4-track mix, intact and sounding wonderful. This mix is completely different to the 2-channel matrixed surround mix usually heard with Xanadu - notably, all of the songs were specially mixed for the four-channel format.

What we get on the R4 disc, though, is as puzzling as it is disappointing.

The R4 audio track is also encoded as a Dolby Digital 4.0 stream, but with a different channel configuration; instead of the theatrically correct 3/1 format of the R1 disc, the R4 version offers a 2/2 configuration - left, right and stereo surrounds. Something’s not quite right about that, you think - and when you press play you realise just how not right it is.

On the R1 version, the four channels are very discrete with the surround channel only called into use for effects and deliberately-placed song ambience. But on the R4, the surrounds spring into life right from the outset, and never shut up - everything seems to be firing through them, dialogue, full music mixes, effects, everything. Heard downmixed into straight stereo - as the majority of people buying this disc will - it’s a mess. In standard stereo mode you’ll hear “flanging” throughout the entire movie, as though it was being played back inside a tin can. In Dolby Surround downmix mode all channel imaging collapses as the high-level bandwidth-limited surround activity swamps everything in its path, and every line of dialogue comes from all around you. In headphones, it redefines aural pain. Something is very wrong here.

Loading samples of the 4-channel stream into an editor reveals what’s going on; the front channels contain a reasonable-quality Dolby Surround 2-channel mix of the film soundtrack, and the two surround channels contain exactly the same 2-channel mix, probably processed through an expander to quieten the surrounds a bit during quieter, dialogue-only moments. You literally could unplug your front speakers, turn around and still hear the complete soundtrack in stereo from your rear speakers - it’s quite a unique and inexplicable situation. The original discrete four-channel mix heard on the R1 disc is nowhere to be found.

It’s a bizarre situation, and we hate to have to be so harsh as to give the audio a zero rating. But one of the main reasons people will buy this disc is the music, and this bizarre piece of audio manipulation sounds dreadful in stereo and just plain wrong in surround. The worst thing about it, though, is that this could not possibly have been an accident. Someone, somewhere deliberately mastered this audio track this way.

For those game enough to take their chances anyway, note also that this soundtrack suffers from the 4% speedup associated with PAL film transfers, and the subsequent pitch increase. On a film with so much music, we’d have hoped time compression would have been used instead.

  Extras
Contract

The R1 disc offered only some production notes, four bios and a trailer; this R4 version gives us a trailer and a photo gallery. The trailer here is a 50-second edit of the hilarious 2-minute trailer on the R1 disc, taken from a print in seriously bad condition and video-overlaid at one point with the film’s title, implying that this master came from the “once used for VHS trailering” drawer. The longer version on the R1 disc is of much better quality, and also retains the unintentionally amusing on-screen titles and voice-over. The photo gallery here, meanwhile, is a set of promo stills reproduced at a fairly low resolution.

  Overall  
Contract

Sporting a video transfer that actually outdoes the already-impressive region 1 edition, this local disc gives both fans and the curious a remarkably solid visual record of a movie that in the hands of some other studios might well be disintegrating and faded by now.

Unfortunately, the audio transfer is a farcical attempt at simulating surround sound, completely inexcusable given that a discrete 4-channel master exists, has been preserved digitally and is owned by the very same company that’s put this version of the disc out. Those after a casual look at the film may or may not mind; if you’re after a copy of this for your collection, however, we can’t recommend this fatally flawed R4 version.


  • LINK: http://www.dvd.net.au/review.cgi?review_id=1238
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      And I quote...
    "An early nominee for Worst Audio Screw-Up Of 2002..."
    - Anthony Horan
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
          Sony DVP-NS300
    • Receiver:
          Sony STR-AV1020
    • Speakers:
          Klipsch Tangent 500
    • Surrounds:
          Jamo
    • Audio Cables:
          Standard RCA
    • Video Cables:
          Monster s-video
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