Since disco was already dying by the time these two spectacularly bad dance-themed movies were released, it’s not fair to say that either picture killed disco. Nonetheless, the sleazy Can’t Stop the Music and the wholesome Xanadu certainly inflicted wounds. Starring the Village People, Can’t Stop the Music is perplexing right from the first frame, because the opening-credits sequence features Steve Guttenberg roller-skating through New York City, in a split-screen effect, as he listens to the Village People on his personal radio and as the credits reveal the motley crew assembled for the movie. Beyond Guttenberg, the cast includes athlete Bruce Jenner and sexpot Valerie Perrine. Stranger still, the picture was directed by Nancy Walker, best known for playing greasy-spoon waitress “Rosie” in ’70s commercials for Bounty paper towels.
Can’t Stop the Music purports to tell the story of the Village People’s formation, and like everything else related to the ridiculous vocal group behind “Macho Man” and “Y.M.C.A.,” Can’t Stop the Music avoids the elephant in the room—the fact that the Village People coyly repackaged homoerotica for mainstream consumption. Can’t Stop the Music is outrageously sexualized, featuring scenes in gyms and saunas and swimming pools—there’s even the occasional glimpse of a penis, despite the film’s PG rating. The five singers in the Village People give terrible acting performances, as does Jenner, and the whole movie is cut so fast that it feels like a hallucination. Weirdest of all, perhaps, is the unrelentingly upbeat tone—Can’t Stop the Music is like an old Garland-Rooney “let’s put on a show” picture, only set in a bathhouse.
Xanadu is just as exuberant, and occasionally just as surreal, but it lacks the subversive quality of Can’t Stop the Music. Instead, Xanadu is an infantile phantasmagoria. However, I must confess to loving the movie’s soundtrack album, featuring songs by Electric Light Orchestra and the film’s leading lady, Olivia Newton-John. (True confession: Xanadu was the first LP I bought with my own money.) Michael Beck, a long way from The Warriors (1979), plays Sonny, an L.A. artist who paints billboard-sized versions of album covers. While roller-skating around Santa Monica one afternoon, Sonny meets the beguiling Kira (Newton-John), who turns out to be one of the Muses from Greek mythology. Kira provides magical inspiration to both Sonny and aging song-and-dance man Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly) as the three contrive to build a roller-disco palace called Xanadu. That is, until Zeus decides Kira must return to Olympus.
In the course of telling its silly story, Xanadu toggles between cinematic styles with great abandon. There’s an animated sequence, lots of special effects, endless roller-disco jams, and a bizarre mash-up number combining a WWII-style big band performance and a guitar-heavy throwdown by L.A. pop-punkers The Tubes. As with Can’t Stop the Music, the genuinely terrible Xanadu is best experienced with either abject disbelief or ironic amusement. The only unassailable aspect of the film is the leading lady’s appearance, because Newton-John was at the apex of her girl-next-door sexiness. Amazingly, Xanadu has enjoyed a long afterlife, even spawning a Broadway musical. Turns out you really can’t stop the music—no matter how hard you try.
FYI, the collective awfulness of Can’t Stop the Music and Xanadu led to the creation of the Golden Raspberry Awards, which honor cinema’s worst achievements.
Can’t Stop the Music: FREAKY