There are two giant names associated with Labyrinth. One of them had a hand in almost all puppet-related media from the sixties through the eighties and one of them created the highest-grossing film franchise of all-time (adjusted for inflation). And yet, there is one name more synonymous with Labyrinth than Jim Henson or George Lucas. That name is David Bowie. This is also the name most responsible for why the movie is so unbelievably weird.
Sure, Labyrinth is fun, bold and imaginative, but at the end of the day, it’s weird. Without Bowie in the role of Jareth, the Goblin King, the film could have been a typical, Wizard of Oz-like journey through an adolescent wonderland. Director Jim Henson’s puppets and Brian Froud’s art direction do nothing but welcome the audience into a fun, magical world. But at some point, Henson decided that Jareth should sing and dance throughout the film. This decision would shape the structure of the film, the tone, and a certain something else in Bowie’s pants.
The film tells the story of Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), a teenage girl who dreams of acting and attending glamorous parties. It would all work out, too, if only her weekends weren’t stolen by Toby, the infant brother she must stay home to babysit. Upset, she summons Jareth to come take Toby away. Then who should arrive but David Bowie in the most ridiculous hairdo in a lifetime of ridiculous hairdos. Once Sarah rejects Jareth’s offer to make her dreams come true, he tells her to navigate his labyrinth or Toby will remain his forever. None of his motivations are clear…Yet.
Hints of where this might be going are revealed as soon as Bowie first shows up.
His mere presence brings a sexuality that probably has no business in a family film that we all watched on VHS when we were kids. Not to mention the main character is a 14-year-old girl. But that’s not the weird part. The weird part is when most of Bowie’s original songs for the film are openly sexual, and when the film embraces them.
The first song and dance number, “Magic Dance,” makes little sense, though not in the way that characters suddenly breaking into song and dance makes little sense, but in the way that Bowie’s pants are far too tight and, “Hey, why is he tossing that baby around?” The song is infamously catchy, if not annoying, and hardly has anything to do with the scene. Who’s “the babe with the power” he recalls so fondly? Why does Jareth want to “Slap that baby, make him free”? These questions will never be answered, but audiences will continue to enjoy watching Bowie dance awkwardly around a bunch of goblins anyway.
After that first of many breaks from the plot, Sarah meets some fun characters, solves riddles and learns some insightful things about herself. Also, Jareth shows up in those tights again, in full view of Sarah, a 14-year-old girl.
The next distraction from the plot and from Jareth’s pants is “Chilly Down,” penned by Bowie, but performed by the puppeteers and voice actors behind The Fire Gang. These troublemakers are interesting as puppet creations but irritating as the purveyors of what is easily the weakest song in the soundtrack. It makes the most sense lyrically, as the song is actually about the characters in the scene and how they “Ain’t got no suitcase,” which is true. Unfortunately, the entire scene only seems to exist so that Sarah’s new friend Hoggle can save her from this song and some sorely outdated green screen effects.
Music and plot finally intersect with “As the World Falls Down,” and what a beautiful, if not creepy scene it makes. When Jareth arranges for Sarah to fall asleep so he can infiltrate her dreams, Sarah finds herself at an extravagant masquerade ball wearing a gorgeous white gown, her glamorous dreams coming to life. And yet, all she seems to want to do is stare doe-eyed across the room at Jareth. She cannot take her eyes off him. Soon enough, they’re waltzing to a particularly sultry song about how he’s falling in love with her. Really? Did he miss how she was 14 years old?
Obviously the loss of innocence and sexual curiosity is a part of any girl’s transition to adulthood, but the frankness in Labyrinth is surprising. In the climactic musical number, Bowie sings, “I can’t live within you,” whatever that might mean. In Sarah’s final showdown with Jareth, he begs of her, “Just let me rule you and you can have everything that you want. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave.” Upon watching this scene, young girls all over apparently reached adulthood overnight. Except, of course, for Sarah, who completes her character arc by denying Bowie’s raw sexuality and returning to her childhood more mature than before.
All strangeness aside, the soundtrack is a fascinating step in Bowie’s career. The songs are by no means his best and they make the film fairly disjointed, but somehow it all works. Somehow Henson’s charm keeps everything in check. Despite the silliness, there is a legitimate reason this is a cult classic. Labyrinth is what it is and few fans would have it any other way.
We’re screening Labyrinth at AMC’s River East 21 on Thursday, May 24. Get your tickets right here!