Jan 13 2012 3:10pm

Camp David: Labyrinth and the Perils of Pop Stardom

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.

2. antares
Excellent piece.

I, too, thought casting David Bowie as the Goblin King was brilliant. I loved every second of his performance.
Wesley Parish
3. Aladdin_Sane
It would make an interesting thought experiment to cast someone else, some other actor, as the Goblin King. Any suggestions?

(Disclaimer: I am not responsible for anyone losing their mind during the performance of any such thought experiment. You perform it at your own risk. End Disclaimer. :)
4. Rachael L
Hi, this is a great article - very witty and well thought out. I just thought I should mention that Labyrinth was directed by Jim Henson, not Terry Jones. Jones wrote the screenplay.
Jack Flynn
5. JackofMidworld
Great article! I don't think I've seen Labyrinth since I've chosen "the real over the fantastic" - bah, who am I kidding. I still hold onto the fantastic, behind all the grown up masks I wear (and that's a whole other interpretation for the masquerade ball; I wonder how many of the people behind the mask were reflections of people from Sarah's "real life"), but it's been a long time since I've sat down to watch this. May have to give it another go just to see it through different eyes.

@ Aladdin_Sane: talk about performing at your own risk! I'm having a lot of trouble trying to think of a current actors who could cross the whismy with the King's dark streak...

Ah, got one: David Tennant
Bridget McGovern
6. BMcGovern
Thanks, everyone!
@Rachel L.--you're absolutely right; not sure how I mixed that up, but it's been a long Bowie Week :) Fixed now!

@Aladdin_Sane and JackofMidworld: Tennant would be kind of amazing--he's got the right sense of humor for it (plus, I stand by my assertion/suspicion that Bowie might actually be a Time Lord, so it all makes sense, somehow...)

If we want to keep heading down this crazy Alternate Goblin King rabbit hole, how about Sting? Sting passed on the role of Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ before Bowie snapped it up, and as far as rock star/actors go, he seems like the closest fit. Mostly because I can't wrap my mind around David Johansen or Tom Waits as Jareth...or can I? I think this is where I start losing my mind, @Aladdin_Sane--that way madness lies :) In any case, I don't think Sting could pull it off--he's just not goofy enough, somehow...
LaShawn Capito
7. QueenC
I think Sting would look good as Jareth- I don't know about the acting though. David Bowie set a high standard I've always loved Labyrinth- I think it's on Netflix now if anyone wants to watch it. I always identified with Sarah when I was younger, but I probably would've given in and stayed with Jareth.
Ian Gazzotti
8. Atrus
I wouldn't say that Sarah chose the real over the fantastic - in fact I'd argue that, to me, the whole point of the movie is that you need both the real and the fantastic in order to get through, whether the 'adversary' is Jareth or the responsibilities that come with growing up.
Bridget McGovern
9. BMcGovern
@Atrus--I make the same argument in my earlier post, and so of course I agree that the message of the movie is that there should be a balance of elements of reality and fantasy in life. However, Sarah (and the audience) doesn't quite get that message until she returns to her house and it's revealed that she still has access to the fantasy world of the Labyrinth. To me, the scene in which she rejects Jareth always seemed as if she had to choose between everything the Labyrinth represented and bringing her brother home, and she makes the adult, responsible decision in spite of the cost--only after this climactic scene do we realize that it doesn't have to be an either-or decision (an ending which is one of the great strengths of the film, in my opinion).
Ian Gazzotti
10. Atrus
@BMcGovern - That makes sense. Though I always saw the rejection of Jareth as, well, the rejection of Jareth. :)
(Or, more specifically, she rejected what Jareth represented: a false idea of adulthood and freedom. To use a different term, we can say she rejected her fancies rather than the fantastic.)
Nick Rogers
11. BookGoblin
I could totally see Sting (and honesty makes me admit he's my favorite musician up front) playing Jareth, but not in this movie. If it was Labyrinth by David Lynch, then sure. Replace the puppets and the whimsy with more "grown up" fare and he'd have been right at home. Feyd-Jareth would have been an interesting take on the character.

As much fun as that would be, let us be collectively honest and admit that Sting simply couldn't have pulled off the hair. I don't care about Bowie's junk getting a screen credit, but that hairdresser deserved an Oscar for best Visual Effect.

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