I began this series last week with Into the Night, a movie in which Bowie plays a pretty small part. Not so much this week— Bowie’s role as Jareth the Goblin King is perhaps his most iconic. Well, Bowie fans would probably say his most iconic film role was that of Thomas Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth, but I’m guessing that Labyrinth has been more widely seen and gave him greater exposure. I read somewhere that some Bowie fans dismiss Labyrinth while some fans of the movie only know Bowie as Jareth.
Whatever else can be said about Labyrinth, it uses Bowie as a singer better than any other movie. Bowie doesn’t sing in most of his movies. He appears as himself, lip-syncing “Station to Station” at a concert scene in the German movie, Christiane F. The Bowie scene is actually kinda cool, but the music isn’t original. He sings Bertolt Brecht songs in the made-for TV production of Baal. These performances are original to the show, but the songs are far afield from typical Bowie rock music, even stipulating that there really is no such thing as typical Bowie rock music. He also does a song and dance number, “That’s Motivation,” in Absolute Beginners, which is also an original, if weak song. Bowie contributed two other songs to that movie’s soundtrack, including the excellent title track, but he only performs that one song. But he performs three original songs in Labyrinth and contributed two others to the soundtrack. So Labyrinth does it best.
The songs, for the most part, also happen to be pretty good. For more on the soundtrack, click here. Bowie also assumes one of his iconic looks in the movie. Though his costume and makeup verge on the ridiculous, he is certainly memorable, and at the end of the day, the look is in the service of what’s really a children’s movie.
I think that’s what to keep in mind in evaluating Labyrinth — it’s a children’s movie. At its core, the story is pretty much like that of The Wizard of Oz. A young girl is transported to a magical place where she has to journey to a castle in order to find her way back. The major difference has to do with Bowie’s character. Jareth serves the function of the Wicked Witch, but while the Witch was an intimidating threat, Jareth is seductive. He’s like the vampire who needs to be invited in.
And like the seductive vampire, Jareth is a stand-in for sexual temptation. The girl, Sarah, played by Jennifer Connolly, is sixteen. She is transported to the magical goblin realm because she curses her baby brother, who she has to babysit in the real world. The metaphor is that she’s at the crossroads of accepting her role as a (potential) mother or living the life of a “bad girl” (by running off with David Bowie, no less). It’s actually a very conservative moral, and of course in the end she rejects temptation and saves her baby brother. Indeed, in that the baby is her brother and not her son, she manages to be a virginal mother figure— all the virtue without any of the sin.
This won’t occur to most viewers of the movie. It’s largely enjoyable and not heavy at all. Since most of the magical creatures are Jim Henson muppets, I don’t think there’s much of an issue of the special effects not holding up (muppets are muppets). Those looking for Bowie to be singing songs from Low or Station to Station would be better watching Christiane F, which is also about a young girl, but one who is a heroin addict. Its not too much of a leap seeing Bowie as the temptation that she did fall for (Christiane F is not a children’s movie). But keeping in mind the target audience, I’m hard pressed to think of a better use of David Bowie in a movie.
Rating: Four out of four Bowies— the highest rating.