We Are Magic: Xanadu at 40

Why the flawless ELO-assisted soundtrack deserves to be separated from Olivia Newton-John’s head-scratching post-Grease career move

Olivia Newton-John in Xanadu (Art: Ron Hart)

When speaking of Xanadu, it’s best to separate the double-platinum soundtrack from the box office failure film.

August marked the 40th anniversary of the film’s star, Olivia Newton-John’s head-scratching post-Grease career move and Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne’s equally questionable decision to write this particular movie musical when, reportedly, he had many other offers. And the joint bewildering, almost certainly conceived-during-an-altered-state brainwave to pair the two together.

Xanadu is the kind of movie you always hear about being a disaster and you think, “Can it really be that bad?” And then you start watching it and immediately think, “Oh, it’s a lot worse,” also, “This film is made for dropping acid.” Xanadu’s confusing roller-skating sequences, Newton-John’s bed skirt-turned-into-a-dress costumes, Gene Kelly’s random, albeit scene-saving appearances—incidentally, Xanadu is his last film role—Michael Beck’s intolerable conceited artist-cum-club promoter character, and overall dreadful script collectively work against focusing on the music, which is flawless.


VIDEO: Olivia Newton-John “Magic”

Side A, as it were, is the Newton-John side with music and lyrics wholly written by her ongoing producer, the hitmaking John Farrar. A total of five songs, it includes Newton-John’s number 1 single, the Grammy-nominated “Magic”—her biggest song at that point, and purportedly a favorite of John Lennon’s the year of his assassination. This side also features the Top 20 ballad “Suddenly,” a duet with Cliff Richard, “Whenever You’re Away From Me,” a big band style duet with Gene Kelly and “Dancin’” a combination big band/rock ‘n’ roll number with the super-cool Tubes. If this sounds like a mishmash of styles, that’s because it is, and the only thing stopping it from being a total mess is Newton-John’s sweet voice and her overall likeability, plus her collaborators’ sheer talent. Musically, it’s all over the place. Individually, the songs are well-crafted and impeccably arranged.

Side B, is the ELO side, also five songs, it is entirely written and produced by Lynne. The Top 20 certified gold hit, “I’m Alive,” kicks this side off in grand style, and if you can block out the muses coming “alive” scene in the film where it is featured from your mind, you can hear the song for the arena anthem that it is. Lynne didn’t compromise musically as all the material he’s penned for Xanadu is straight out of the ELO playbook, including the second top 20 hit, “All Over The World,” and “Don’t Walk Away,” the soundtrack’s final single.

Of the six songs released as singles from the Xanadu soundtrack, four of them are from the ELO side, including the title track, the album’s second Top 10 hit. Performed jointly by Newton-John and ELO, it is the band’s only number 1 in the UK. The song also snagged Jeff Lynne the honor of a prestigious Ivor Novello Award for Best Film Theme Song. 

Soundtrack chart and sales success of triple-platinum+ internationally aside, the film Xanadu also has the dubious distinction of being one of the films that inspired the creation of the Golden Raspberry Awards or the “Razzies,” the counterpoint to the Academy Awards for the worst of the worst in cinema.

Xanadu was one the nominees in the inaugural year of the Razzies and lost to perhaps the only other 1980 film worse than Xanadu, the diabolical Can’t Stop The Music


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Lily Moayeri

Lily Moayeri has been a freelance journalist since 1992. She has contributed to numerous publications including Billboard, NPR, Rolling Stone, Los Angeles Times, Variety, Spin, Los Angeles Magazine, A.V. Club, and more. Lily hosts the Pictures of Lily Podcast, a bi-weekly podcast about her interviewing experiences. She has participated as moderator and panelist at numerous music conferences. She has also served as a teacher librarian since 2004 focusing on guiding students in navigating the intersection of technology and education.