My wife and I went to see Labyrinth at a drive-in this summer. She had never seen it and I hadn’t seen it for many years. I have always had generally positive feelings about the movie, but it isn’t the epitome of what I like about Bowie. Michelle also liked the movie, but asked me afterward, “why did he do it?” Labyrinth is a children’s movie. Even at the peak of Bowie’s attempt to appeal to a mainstream audience (which was about when he made Labyrinth in 1986), a children’s movie seems in retrospect to be a deviation from a career replete with deviations.
Actually, it wasn’t Bowie’s first attempt to reach out to a younger generation. He famously recorded a Christmas song with Bing Crosby in 1979 (for one of Crosby’s Christmas specials), and he narrated an album of Peter and the Wolf in 1977. But Labyrinth was more conspicuous. Bowie appeared in many movies, and contributed in one way or another to many soundtracks, but this is the only one in which he starred as a fictional character that sings throughout the movie. Accordingly, the soundtrack contains six Bowie songs, the same number as the album, “Station to Station” (although two of the Bowie songs on Labyrinth are different variations of “Underground”). Still, this usually doesn’t make it onto lists of Bowie studio albums, probably because the actual Bowie songs are outnumbered by instrumentals by Trevor Jones.
Bowie songs are not the only type of music I listen to. I listen to instrumental movie soundtrack music almost every day. Yet despite my appreciation of both Bowie and movie soundtracks, I don’t often listen to this soundtrack. After doing the year-long tribute project in 2016, I more or less rediscovered “Underground,” which stands up well on its own and which I quite like (I like the end credits version featuring gospel-like elements). The other song that works outside the context of the movie is, “As the World Falls Down,” though I am less keen on that one.
The other songs, including “Magic Dance,” which I might be the best known song from the soundtrack, really only work within the movie. The worst, which I don’t think works even within the movie, is “Chilly Down.” I have seldom come across references to this song in Bowie retrospectives. I suspect it doesn’t make his “worst of” list because he doesn’t provide lead vocals in the movie, and it gets cut a break for being a children’s song (I’m positing with this commentary an audio version of Bowie himself singing the song with slightly different lyrics).
So why did he do it? I don’t know. But while the late 1980s are usually treated as the low-point of Bowie’s career, it was actually a prolific period. He was doing albums, movies, concerts— even commercials. That led him to this collaboration with George Lucas, Jim Henson, and Monty Python’s Terry Jones. Given its progenitors, it couldn’t be all bad. And it isn’t at all. After seeing it again after many years, I thought the movie was delightful. I can appreciate why it has a following. And though the songs don’t compare well to Bowie’s best, I don’t know who could have done a better job of creating and performing original music for the movie. So while I don’t know why Bowie took this detour, I’m glad he did.