Fresh from co-starring in Grease, the liveliest musical of the post-studio era and the genre's biggest ever commercial success, Olivia Newton John made the mistake of trying to float a conceit that had already confounded Fred Astaire in Yolanda and the Thief, Rita Hayworth in Down to Earth and Ava Gardner in One Touch of Venus.
Not even the presence of Gene Kelly, who was archly named after his character in Cover Girl, could elevate the stubbornly earthbound proceedings - not that he was allowed to, however. He got to rollerskate, as he had done in It's Always Fair Weather, and his duet with Olivia on `Whenever You're Away from Me' is the film's highlight. But this was an Olivia Newton John vehicle and Kelly was simply there to make her look good and lure the nostalgic away from their TV sets.
Of necessity, the plotline was risible. But Newton John totally lacked the screen presence to carry off such an ethereal role. Moreover, her dramatic shortcomings were cruelly exacerbated by the inanimation of Michael Beck, as she was too often left to carry their scenes on her own. She made the most of tunes like ex-husband John Farrar's `Magic' and the Jeff Lynne title theme (both of which charted well), but the inability to dance that had been disguised as best as possible in Grease was exposed by Kenny Ortega choreography that fell far short of the zeitgeist chic he managed to achieve in Saturday Night Fever.
However, Xanadu's gravest fault was its cynical resort to the Golden Age in a bid to appeal to the widest possible constituency. There was no real affection for the MGM style here, just an exploitative MTV-era pastiche that plugged gaps that the dismal pop of the late 1970s couldn't hope to fill.
Olivia met future husband Matt Lattanzi during the shoot (he played the younger Kelly). But she failed to learn anything from the film's failure and, three years later, played another heavenly messenger in her calamitous reunion with John Travolta, Two of a Kind.