In 1979, Jeff Lynne started work on the music for Olivia Newton-John’s 1980 disco-new wave film, Xanadu. However, the contract that the Electric Light Orchestra frontman signed put constraints on him. Lynne thought the music he contributed was OK. As for the film, he couldn’t watch it.
Why Jeff Lynne agreed to do Olivia Newton-John’s ‘Xanadu’
In 1979, ELO were at their best with 1979’s Discovery. Then, according to the documentary Going Back to Xanadu, producer Joel Silver (Die Hard and The Matrix) asked ELO to do the film.
Lynne admitted that he wanted to do the project because Newton-John had signed on to be the lead actor in Xanadu. He said, “I took it because I thought, well, I like Olivia. … She’s great. It would be nice to meet her.”
Lynne said he can’t watch Newton-John’s ‘Xanadu’
While working on their part of the soundtrack, Lynne had to write songs under the tight constraints of his contract.
ELO drummer Bev Bevan told Martin Kinch (per Ultimate Classic Rock) that recording the title track was exceptionally hard.
“It was a really difficult song to record because Jeff had sent the demo of the song to the studio in Hollywood, and they had actually shot the dance sequence to the demo,” Bevan said. “So when we came to record it for real, we had to keep in time with the demo, and the demo was not in time, so it was a bit of a nightmare to actually record the thing.
“We were [at Musicland Studios] in Munich at the time doing it, and it became a very frustrating experience, making what should have taken a couple of hours took about three or four days, as I remember.”
In the end, his five songs satisfied Lynne. “I’m really pleased with the music,” he said in Going Back to Xanadu. However, Xanadu flopped. All of Lynne’s hard work was for nothing.
Lynne told Rolling Stone (per LA Weekly), “I wrote half the songs, though I’ve never seen the thing. I don’t suppose anybody else has, either. It was supposed to be really bad. I don’t think I’ll ever see the movie after reading the reviews.”
The producer thought the flop hurt ELO
Xanadu was a complete flop. A year after, ELO released Time. Lynne thought some radio stations were reluctant to play the album. Lynne blamed Xanadu during an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“It’s because of that film,” he said. “They’re saying, ‘We don’t want to touch them after that bloody film.’ It’s because the film is so bad, and it’s a failure and we’re associated with it… It’s because the film is so bad and it’s a failure and we’re associated with it.”
Lynne also acknowledged that some backlash came from many people’s feelings that ELO’s Xanadu songs were too pop. However, Lynne was trapped in his contract to give the filmmakers what they wanted.
“Maybe it does have too much of a pop approach to it,” Lynne said. “But that’s what they wanted. I had to give them what they wanted. I was trapped [by the contract].”
ELO didn’t survive for much longer after Time and it may have been due to Xanadu. However, Lynne never regretted doing the film, and neither did Newton-John or anyone else. At the very least, “Xanadu” gave ELO their first and only U.K. chart-topper.