Full disclosure here: I’m writing this review because of my interest in The Electric Light Orchestra and have to admit that I feel utterly indifferent to Olivia Newton-John’s music; it is not something that has ever interested nor offended me (although I do think “Physical” is rather awful). Honestly, I am not writing these words to upset fans of the film or of Olivia, Cliff or anyone else to do with the project. Sadly, I do think it’s a shame that Jeff Lynne and the Electric Light Orchestra had anything to do with the 1980 film “Xanadu”, such was the negative critical response. It was named amongst the worst films of the year by critics and was even an inspiration for the Golden Raspberry Awards, formed specifically to ‘honour’ bad motion pictures. However, the silver lining to this cloud is the handful of excellent Lynne-penned songs which appear in the film and, subsequently, on the soundtrack. Being completely objective, I can’t say that there is much on side one of the album to interest me and the fact that ELO share a soundtrack with Cliff Richard is one that causes an uncomfortable shifting in my seat. Unfortunately, these songs comprise half of the record, so it would be wrong to ignore them and just pretend they weren’t there… as much as I would like to.
Each of the five songs on the first half of the album are written by John Farrar, a successful songwriter and long-time collaborator with Olivia Newton-John (he wrote “Have You Never Been Mellow”, as well as “Hopelessly Devoted To You” and “You’re The One That I Want” on the “Grease” soundtrack), so his track record is impressive. Indeed, opening song “Magic” was a number one single in the USA, so he worked his magic (sorry) on this soundtrack too, but I’m going to have to disagree with millions of record buying Americans, because I find it inoffensive, but really rather bland. The duet with Cliff Richard, “Suddenly”, is a well-written, melodic song with a chorus that will have pleased many ears at the time, but it’s way too slushy and sugary for my taste. “Dancin’” features San Francisco rock band The Tubes and is a rather strange track that splices a peppy Andrews Sisters-type vocal harmony song with a rather straight forward (and very eighties-sounding) rock track. Oddly enough, it’s so strange that it’s probably my favourite out of the first five tracks. Sadly, with the ballad “Suspended In Time”, we’re back to pop so sugary, they had to put warnings for diabetics on the front cover and the big band jazz of “Whenever You’re Away From Me”, performed with Gene Kelly, is pleasant but way too light, lacking the kind of punch the song and style calls for. On the whole, Farrar’s side isn’t absolutely terrible, but I have to admit to being relieved when it is over and very rarely revisit those five songs.
So, onto side two of the album, which is completely comprised of Jeff Lynne compositions. If you’re anything like me, these five songs will be the only reason to consider adding it to your collection. Luckily, there are just enough Jeff Lynne gems on offer here to make the whole soundtrack a worthwhile purchase. “I’m Alive” is the first track on the ELO portion of the album and is a cracker just for the melody line alone, never mind the sweeping Louis Clark strings and joyful, life-affirming character. The lesser of the five songs is “The Fall”, which almost sounds like a re-written “I’m Alive” but the haunting “Don’t Walk Away” sees Jeff making the very most of a classic chord progression by delivering a beautiful, emotionally effecting vocal performance. The catchy “All Over The World” has enough energy and musical nous to overcome the slightly clichéd lyrics before the album ends with Olivia Newton-John and ELO’s version of the UK number one hit, “Xanadu”. It remains Jeff Lynne’s only ever number one hit, but it’s such a beautifully written and arranged song, it’s definitely a worthy chart-topper (I do, however, prefer the slightly more unfussy Jeff Lynne version which first appeared on the box set “Flashback”, but you can’t deny Olivia’s excellent vocals on this original).
The Electric Light Orchestra were down to a four-piece band at this moment in time (Jeff, Bev, Richard and Kelly) and their work for this soundtrack very much sounds like an extension of the same kind of danceable pop style that 1979’s “Discovery” was centred around, especially “All Over The World” and “I’m Alive”, whereas “Don’t Walk Away”, with those sparkling synthesisers, could easily have been an album track on their previous record. Everything on this record is good, catchy pop music, but, objectively, there isn’t a composition on this soundtrack, with the exception of “Xanadu” itself that measures up to the vast majority of songs on either “A New World Record” or “Out Of The Blue”. ELO fans will certainly want a copy of this soundtrack to complete their collection, but this is most definitely the least essential purchase out of all of their albums, especially given the fact that they don’t appear on half of it. Unless, of course, you love Olivia Newton-John or, even less likely, the film itself (which I attempted to watch once and couldn’t sit through), in which case, you probably own this already and disagree with most of what I’ve had to say. In my defence, the current score on the Internet Movie Database (imdb) for this film, according to users, is a lowly five out of ten. If you go purely by professional critics, that average drops to three and a half. It’s a cult classic, but I’m happy to not be part of that particular cult, other than enjoying Jeff Lynne’s contributions. Sorry.