Hollywood Flashback: 'Xanadu' Was So Bad It Launched the Razzies in 1980

Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection
From left: 'Xanadu' stars Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly on clarinet and Michael Beck. THR’s July 20, 1979, front page announced that Newton-John had signed on to the musical fantasy.

Despite marking Olivia Newton-John's first feature film post-'Grease' and Gene Kelly's final role before his death in 1996, the $20 million production ($61  million today) bombed at the box office, with critics noting it was a failure "but not necessarily as entertainment." The film also failed to win a Razzie, which was awarded to 'Can't Stop the Music.'

For a film to have co-inspired the Golden Raspberry Awards, which are given for "failure in cinematic achievements," one would assume the picture had absolutely no redeeming value. But THR wasn't that hard on 1980's Xanadu. (The first Raspberrys' other inspiration was another nominee for worst film, Can't Stop the Music, actress Nancy Walker's feature directing debut, which really did have no redeeming value.) THR said Xanadu "is neither the film its producer hoped it would be nor is it the artistic write-off the rumor mill has labeled it."

In describing Xanadu's plot, THR noted, "It bravely mixes fragile fantasy with sci-fi special effects and '80s music, spends some story time in heaven and the rest on roller skates in Southern California."

Before it began filming, Xanadu had a bright future. It was front-page news that the Universal production would be a then-31-year-old Olivia Newton-John's first film after the blockbuster Grease. And it would be the last film appearance screen legend Gene Kelly, then 68, would make before his death in 1996. But the old dancer knew this was no Singin' in the Rain. In the biography The Films of Gene Kelly, Song and Dance Man, his only quote about Xanadu is: "The concept was marvelous, but it just didn't come off."

Besides not coming off artistically, Xanadu bombed at the box office. The $20 million production ($61 million today) had a domestic gross of $23 million ($70 million today). But the soundtrack was a major success, peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 and launching five singles that charted on the top 20, including Newton-John's No. 1 "Magic," as well as a Broadway adaptation.

"The key to Xanadu is, it was enjoyable in a way that was not intended," says Golden Raspberry Awards co-founder Mo Murphy. "It was a failure as a film but not necessarily as entertainment."

It failed at the Razzies, too. The prize for worst film went to Can't Stop the Music.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.