LABYRINTH: Long Live The Goblin King
As is the case with any moviegoing experience I'd consider to be formative, I find that I'm able to recall an unusual number of details about the day I saw Labyrinth.
I remember where I saw the film (the AMC Central 7 in Plano, TX) and who I was with (a few kids from the neighborhood, plus their mom, who'd offered to take us). I remember being scared of an early scene wherein baby Toby is stolen from his crib, and - shortly thereafter - nearly crying with laughter at the fart noises in the Bog Of Eternal Stench. I remember sort of swooning over Jennifer Connelly (in the same way any kid might swoon over a pretty babysitter), having my mind blown by the film's M.C. Escher-inspired finale, and being flat-out mesmerized by the blow-dried weirdo in shockingly revealing tights who played the film's villain, Jareth.
June 27, 1986, this was. I was five years old, and I had just become aware of David Bowie.
David Bowie is a lot for anyone to wrap their head around, nevermind a five year old. It turns out that a number of other world famous musicians had been considered for the role (including Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, and Prince), but director Jim Henson ultimately decided that Bowie, who "embodied a certain maturity, with his sexuality, his disturbing aspect, all sorts of things that characterize the adult world", would best serve the film he wanted to make. In classic Henson fashion, "the film he wanted to make" would delight (and occasionally frighten) children, entertain adults, and bridge the gap between them with just a hint of subversion. Bowie was the perfect choice.
One of several, actually. For starters, Henson had a script written by Monty Python alum Terry Jones. The truth is that Jones' script was heavily rewritten on its way to production, but you can still sense the subtle influence of a Python vet while revisiting the film today, primarily in the undercurrent of impish humor that runs through the whole thing. You can feel it in the scene with the Door Guards (and their seemingly-impossible riddle), in the one-off sight gags taking place in the film's margins (see also: the tiny, enraged goblin who continually sabotages Sarah's attempts to navigate the Labyrinth), and in the slapstick-y third act battle that takes place in the crooked streets of Goblin City. Jones may not feel any ownership on the film, but the influence is there.
Henson also had George Lucas producing (and, eventually, helping him to shape the film in editing), and - as he'd done on The Dark Crystal - he was working on sets filled with creatures designed by the legendary Brian Froud. Admittedly, Lucas' fingerprints are harder to suss out than those of Froud, a talent whose work is absolutely singular. Every new location in Labyrinth is interesting to gawk at, to wonder about. As a kid, I remember wanting to explore every corner of the Labyrinth, and I was not surprised - upon revisiting the film last night - that I'm just as curious about this universe Froud created. I still want to poke around those sets.
These guys all brought something undeniable to the Labyrinth table, but in the end it's Bowie - in that high-collared coat, with his impossibly 80's hairdo - who looms largest over the film. To my generation, Labyrinth is surely a classic, but Bowie in Labyrinth? Shit's iconic.
To a five year old viewer, his performance set off a fireworks display of emotions. He was sinister and reptilian. He looked dangerous and barely contained, somehow. He was clearly the bad guy - he kidnapped this girl's baby brother, of course he was the bad guy! - and yet...he was also mischievous (trouble, but the fun kind of trouble), and badass in a way we didn't even know it was possible to be badass (singing, dancing, wearing billowy shirts). He also owned a castle and had an army of grotesque puppets to do his bidding. You watched Labyrinth's story unfold and you couldn't help but think, "Y'know, maybe it wouldn't be so bad, shacking up with the Goblin King".
There was also the matter of Bowie's undeniable sexuality to consider, but we had neither the vocabulary nor the life experience to identify this for what it was. Yes, it was clear the King loved the Girl and that his interests in her were romantic in some way, but Bowie's presence - his natural, primal sexuality - warped the entire film, resulting in a character who probably brought about a number of sexual awakenings on every side of the 80's-kid gender/sexuality quadrant. Just think: for some kids, this might've been their first brush with the "adult" world. That's sort of incredible.
Special mention should also be made of the music Bowie wrote for the film. A few of the songs - "Dance Magic" and "Chilly Down" - are joyous and silly and clearly intended to be loved by children; the others (especially "As The World Falls Down" and "Within You") have a harder edge than anything you might usually expect to find playing over a kids' movie. All of them feature Bowie's exceptional talent for providing great hooks and pure danceability (if, at this point, you are wondering what the Michael Jackson version of Labyrinth might have sounded like, allow me to point you in the direction of this clip, from Captain EO).
Labyrinth has always felt like a real miracle movie to me, the kind of thing where you just sit back and shake your head in wonder at the fact that it ever got made. This isn't entirely fair given the pedigree of all involved, of course (it couldn't have felt like that much of a longshot to whoever signed the checks), but still: in 1985, David Bowie co-starred with a number of freakish puppets in a dark musical fantasy directed by Jim Henson. Doesn't that feel unlikely? Doesn't that feel miraculous? And doesn't it feel fitting, considering how unlikely and miraculous David Bowie's entire career was?
Rewatching the film last night, I reflected on Bowie's impact - not only on my generation, but on the world at large - and it brought me to tears. What an amazing talent. What a wonderful man. What a legend. He will be missed.
The Goblin King is dead.
Long live the Goblin King.