I’ve written about my abiding love for Labyrinth before, most recently during Muppet Week. Not much has changed since then (not counting this news about a new graphic novel prequel to the movie) — I still think the movie deserves to be taken seriously as a truly inspired, thoughtful, subversively feminist addition to the tradition of classic coming-of-age stories which are so lovingly, and cleverly, referenced throughout.
At the same time, taking the movie seriously shouldn’t mean pretending that it’s a particularly serious film — the screenplay was, after all, written by Monty Python’s Terry Jones. And it’s filled with muppets. And, well...the antagonist is a toddler-juggling, shape-shifting weirdo with a glitter fetish who dresses (and behaves) like the tarted-up bastard offspring of Cruella de Vil and Aunty Entity.
Labyrinth is hilarious, and I think that much of the humor derives from Bowie’s performance, from his imperious, occasionally arch delivery to the way he preens and smirks his way through his scenes. In a separate post, I’ve remarked upon his penchant for spoofing his own image as a spoiled, out-of-touch rock star and willingness to poke fun at the stereotype of the pretentious, self-obsessed pop idol, and I definitely think that the role of Jareth taps into a very similar vein.
Before we start delving into the similarities between rock stars and fairy tale villains, though, I think we need to talk about the elephant in the room. And by the “the room,” I mean Bowie’s pants. And by “the elephant” I mean…well, it’s become known as “The Area” (please note: this, and the next few links, may have some arguably NSFW images, by the way, so proceed with caution). There’s no getting around it — there are whole sites and multiple Facebook pages devoted to the Goblin King’s royal business. Hell, Labyrinth’s entry at TV Tropes even begins: “Labyrinth is a 1986 Jim Henson film executive produced by George Lucas, a musical fantasy starring David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, and David Bowie’s junk, which really should get its own acting credit.”
In other words, David Bowie’s crotch officially became a full-blown meme at some point. Let’s just acknowledge the fact and move on, right after we watch this highly educational clip from the classic documentary This Is Spinal Tap, whose protagonists understand better than most the burden of the tight-panted rock idol:
Feel better? I know I do. Man, the 80s were a strange time. Moving on.
I was saying that Bowie’s performance as Jareth can be read as a clever spin on the stereotypical rock diva: He’s surrounded by minions and lackeys, all of whom are afraid of him and obey his every command (I’ve always thought that the goblins would make excellent roadies. The jury’s still out on Hoggle). He lives by his own set of often absurd rules, reordering time and screwing around with the laws of physics (which is something only Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, and Bowie can get away with in real life, as far as I know. And maybe Jay-Z). He’s also got the hair, the make-up…the tights. And, most importantly, he’s obviously got a thing for young girls — or at least one young girl — in a potentially-very-creepy way.
I actually think Labyrinth does a brilliant job of playing Bowie and Jennifer Connelly’s teenaged Sarah off of one another — their interactions and obvious connection never come across as disturbing, but she is clearly fascinated by him, and the movie doesn’t shy away from portraying the attraction between them as both natural and inherently problematic.
This sense of palpable chemistry mingled with repulsion is probably best illustrated in the baroque fantasy sequence that results from Sarah eating a bewitched peach (courtesy of Jareth, of course). As he stalks her through the twirling crowd of masked goblin groupies, Sarah appears lost, worried, confused — she isn’t ready to be part of this world, and eventually rejects him, smashing her way out of his gilded seduction bubble and destroying the fantasy.
Jareth’s sinister allure and her wariness of him makes complete sense from Sarah’s point of view — and seeing as she’s the protagonist, her perspective is ultimately the one we care about. What the movie never shows us are Jareth’s motivations (although I’m sure these have been much speculated upon and elaborated elsewhere). Jareth’s side of the story isn’t particularly important to the central coming-of-age narrative we’re invested in, but one of the great strengths of David Bowie’s performance is the wistful dimension he brings to the character.
In between all the amusing scenery-chewing and strutting about, one gets the sense that he’s got quite a lot at stake in this battle of wills — he’s not some manic, Saturday Morning Cartoon-style villain randomly snatching babies and tormenting the protagonists for kicks. There is an urgency to his efforts to thwart Sarah’s progress through the Labyrinth, which in the end gives way to a kind of quiet desperation at the film’s climax:
In the end, after all the high drama, they are simply two people at an impasse — him exhausted, pleading, asking more than she can give; her, focused, fueled by epiphany, doing what needs to be done. In spite of the MC Escher backdrop and other fantastic elements, stripped of all its trappings, it’s a very spare, calm, honest and adult moment — and if we’re all being honest, it’s a little sad, too. Of course, on one level this is the moment that Sarah grows up, and her rejection of Jareth signals her newfound independence from self-absorption and childish melodrama, but it’s also the moment that she chooses the rational over the romantic, the real over the fantastic, and those choices are supposed to be painful — necessary, absolutely, but slightly painful. That’s what gives them meaning.
Bowie’s performance is most memorable for its campiness, but these subtler aspects — his wistfulness, his desperate admission that he needs Sarah to believe in him, and the disappointment on his face when she denies him — are what make it truly interesting. As much as Jareth’s over-the-top antics are reminiscent of a spoiled rock star slightly past his prime, I think the true connection between Goblin King and pop idol lies in their shared dependence on the whims of fans and true believers. Fantasies draw strength from the people who buy into them; their power depends on their continued ability to enthrall, to command interest, to divert and entertain, and who knows better than Bowie that avoiding obsolescence means staying ahead of the shifting whims of young fans who grow up, move on, and lose interest?
The perils of pop stardom are a common theme in pop music, unsurprisingly — hell, Morrissey has practically made an art form of preemptively lamenting the fickleness and inconstancy of his fanbase, whinging away like a jealous, needy lover, convinced we’ve all got one foot out the door. (And I say this as a fan; he totally makes it work). But Bowie has always managed to avoid this dreaded fate and remain relevant through his constant self-reinvention and stylistic innovation — he is hyper-aware that times change, he knows that people grow up and get bored, and I’d argue that this knowledge, especially at the point in his career when Labyrinth was made, helps inform and elevate his performance beyond the realm of camp.
Not that we should underestimate the power of the camp, which certainly has a magic of its own...thus, I’d like to leave you with the fabulous, (in)famous , baby-endangering showstopper that is “Dance, Magic, Dance.” It just wouldn’t be Bowie Week without at least one video of the man himself prancing around his goblin-infested throne room, so please enjoy:
Bridget McGovern urges you to go back to your room, play with your toys and your costumes. Forget about the baby.