“The dream that came through a million years
That lived on through all the tears
It came to Xanadu…”
Tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Xanadu, the multi-million-pound fantasy roller-disco movie musical extravaganza starring Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly. In many ways, it symbolized the glittery excesses of the early 1980s.
The venture was a relative commercial success; it made a modest profit at the box-office, and its soundtrack did even better, spawning several huge hits for Olivia Newton-John (‘Magic’, ‘Suddenly’) and the Electric Light Orchestra (‘I’m Alive’, ‘All Over The World’). However, the film quickly gained a reputation for being a muddled affair with a confusing and vaguely ridiculous plot (Newton-John plays a Muse sent down to earth to help Gene Kelly and his young protégé Michael Beck set up a 1940s-themed roller-disco).
At the time of its release, critics scoffed. The London Times called it ‘the most dreadful, tasteless movie of the decade. Indeed, of all time.’ (You can make your own judgment based on the video clip below…)
Nonetheless, Xanadu has remained a cult favourite for the last three decades, and was revived in 2007 for a successful tongue-in-cheek Broadway production which garnered rave reviews, not least from Olivia Newton-John herself.
It goes to show, sometimes even the most unlikely dreams – even those that aren’t to anyone else’s taste – have a life, and legs, of their own. Indeed, sometimes they survive because of their oddness, not in spite of it. I’m pretty sure there’s lesson there…
It’s possible that the film was simply following in the footsteps of another Xanadu’s ability to emerge from dreams into life with incredible and somewhat unlikely staying power. In 1797, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge composed a poem called Kubla Khan, a fragment of which was eventually published in his collection Christabel, Kubla Khan, and the Pains of Sleep in 1816. It begins:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
According to Coleridge’s preface to Kubla Khan, the full poem of 300 lines was composed one night in an opium-influenced dream after reading a book describing the Tartar king Kublai Khan. Upon waking, Coleridge set about writing the poem down, but was only part-way through when he was interrupted by a knock on the door from a visitor from the neighbouring village. The interruption caused him to forget the rest of the poem, and thus only a small fragment of 54 lines was ever recorded on paper.
The ‘Xanadu’ mentioned in the poem was a real place: more accurately known as Shàngd?, the summer capital of Kublai Khan’s Yuan empire. It was built between 1252 and 1256 in what is now Inner Mongolia, during the Mongol invasion. At its peak, over 100,000 people lived within its walls. In 1369 Shàngd? fell under the Ming’s army occupation, and was burned to the ground. Today, only ruins remain, surrounded by a grassy mound that was once the city walls. Despite the reality of its history, Xanadu is most readily remembered as a fictional construct, symbolic of mystery and opulence, and often associated in people’s minds with the imagined utopias of Shangri-La and Shambhala.
All of which goes to show (I told you there was a lesson): whether a fragment of a half-remembered dream; an overblown 1980s pop-music fantasy; a towering Imperial tribute to power and riches; or a mythical kingdom symbolising happiness and fulfilment – Xanadu has far outlived the ravages of time.
I have only two questions for you in relation to all of this Xanadu-talk. What’s your Xanadu? And what are you doing, today, to find it and to help it to grow and flourish in the years to come?*
© Brian Cormack Carr, 2010