(Welcome to Videodrome. A recurring column plumbing the depths of vintage and contemporary cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir, documentary and beyond.)
I don’t remember the first time I saw Labyrinth, but I was young. Young enough to not comprehend the fantastical plot, which revolves around a teenage girl’s journey through a hypnagogic maze to rescue her baby brother after he’s kidnapped by goblins (per her wish). Young enough to not understand that the head-popping “Firey” creatures were puppets from Jim Henson’s famed Creature Shop, not real beasts that could (and would) steal me out of bed in the middle of the night. Young enough to not know the difference between fantasy and reality, fact from fiction.
Like many millennials, I wore out my VHS copy of Labyrinth till it was overlapped with jittery tracking lines. As kids often are, I was compulsive with my screenings. I would watch it over and over and over again—and then watch it again. While my peers had Barney, Big Bird, or Mr. Rogers to captivate their imagination, I had Jareth The Goblin King: ruler of Goblin City and architect of the labyrinth. I had no context for the man behind the tight grey leggings and androgynous blonde wig. I didn’t know that Jareth was a rockstar named David Bowie.
On the morning of January 10th, 2016, I was listening to the radio while driving from Chicago’s South Loop to a rehearsal studio in Humboldt Park. The voices coming from the FM dial were disorientating. The words didn’t make sense:
“…we’re just getting news now that English singer, songwriter, and actor David Bowie has died at his Lafayette street home in New York City…while the cause of death has not been announced yet, what is known is that the man who fell to earth is back amongst the stars…”
David Bowie is dead? No, that can’t be true. Death would imply that Bowie was a mere mortal like the rest of us, not the mythological demigod he seemingly existed as. How could he do something as trivial as dying and being human?
I still haven’t fully come to grips with the fact that Bowie is gone. Like many who grew up with his records and movies, I felt like I lost a life-long friend. I know it’s a silly sentiment considering I never met the man. The alien. The vampire. Whatever he was. But I did grow up with him, even if only through his artifacts. If I wasn’t glued to my families Zenith tubed television watching Labyrinth, I was looking through my dad’s record collection, which included a well-worn copy of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars. I eventually put two and two together. Jareth was Ziggy, and Bowie was…?
Once I was old enough to get a library card, I checked out every David Bowie CD my public library had available. I’d burn them to blank discs, listening to them on repeat on my Sony Discman. By the time I replaced my Discman with an iPod, the Bowie discography was the first thing I uploaded. I’d make my high school band play “Rock ’n Roll Suicide” in every VFW hall and church basement in the western suburbs of Chicago, failing to read the quarter-capacity crowds of bored scene kids, more interested in hearing Saosin than sloppy Bowie covers. Throughout my early twenties, I’d enter into a whirlwind of ill-fated romances based on the pretense we were both Bowie fans (“we’re perfect for each other, right?!”). The “end-of-The Graduate” moment would occur after exhausting every discussion that could possibly be had about Bowie’s records, films, and folklore; the rooms once filled with quotes from The Hunger and favorite songs from Young Americans left silent in the dawning realization we had nothing else in common.
Like Jareth in the Labyrinth, Bowie was a fantasy figure in the maze of pop culture. Otherworldly sonically and aesthetically, he always seemed to be a few steps ahead of the cultural zeitgeist that he governed over. While the characters he played (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke, etc.) were punctuated by a sensational exclamation point, Bowie himself remained a question mark. There was an enigmatic mystery to him, especially towards the end of his life. At the time of his death, nobody knew he was working on a new record (the deeply cryptic, post-humous Blackstar) while dying from liver cancer. He comfortably disappeared into the shadow of his legend, which permeated into mythic proportions with each passing year he kept out of the spotlight. Perhaps this is why I still struggle with Bowie’s death: I can’t help but feel that he was planning something during all of those quiet years. Something Kaufman-esque. Something conspiratorial. Maybe he’s still out there, lifting longnecks with Elvis at a desert dive, patiently waiting for the perfect moment to pull down the curtain and kick over the mic stand, announcing his triumphant return with a cheshire cat grin: “Hello, darlings. Did you miss me?” But on a subconscious level, I think my struggle with his death goes back to my first encounter with Bowie. It goes back to Jareth. It goes back to Labyrinth.
At the end of Labyrinth, Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) and Jareth (David Bowie) face off in a dreamlike room that defies the laws of gravity, modeled after M.C. Esher’s lithograph print, Relativity. Sarah struggles to navigate the dizzying room and retrieve her baby brother, Toby. Meanwhile, Jareth weaves in and out of a tangent of hallways and staircases, upside down and downside up. He sings the climactic “Within You,” his voice taking on a menacing quality on top of shifting time signatures and an octave-spanning bass synth (“Within You” contains one of my all-time favorite Bowie lyrics: “Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for you/I move the stars for no one,” indicating that he has the power to move the stars, but chooses not to. In a few words, it sums up everything I love about Bowie’s powerful mystique). At the end of the song, Jareth offers Sarah her dreams in exchange for Toby. Sarah recites lines from the fairytale she was reading at the beginning of the film, which loosely echos her own journey. When she can’t remember the last line, Jareth pleads with her: “I ask for so little. Just fear me. Love me. Do as I say and I shall be your slave.” Finally, Sarah remembers the last line, looking Jareth dead in the eye: “You have no power over me.” In glitchy slow motion, Jareth throws the crystal ball into the air. It hangs suspended, floating down to Sarah’s hand and popping like a bubble on her palm. Jareth, defeated by Sarah, transforms into an owl and flies away.
Upon returning home, Sarah discovers Toby safe and sound in his crib. As Sarah’s parents return home from their night out, she’s revisited by the friends she made on her surreal journey through the Goblin City: a beast named Ludo, a troll named Hoggle, and an anthropomorphism fox named Sir Didymus. Gazing at her reflection in her vanity mirror, Sarah realizes she’s not a kid anymore. Like Dorothy returning to Kansas at the end of Wizard of Oz, Sarah leaves the childish fantasy of the Goblin City behind in favor of her adult responsibilities. Although her acceptance of the reality of adulthood leave little room for the dreams of youth, Labyrinth concludes by suggesting that everyone needs a little adventure and imagination in their life, no matter how old you are. The final shot of the film is all the creatures from the labyrinth throwing a party in Sarah’s room. As the camera cranes out from her bedroom window, we see Jareth in owl form, perched on a tree branch and watching the celebration from afar. He flies away into the night sky. The credits roll. The End.
Despite what Labyrinth’s final act is trying to say about the growing pains of childhood, it leaves the future of the main antagonist open-ended. Although Jareth does not achieve his goal of keeping Toby and seducing Sarah, he’s allowed to fly away unscathed. He doesn’t die. He isn’t hurt or injured. Apart from his physical shape-shifting, his character doesn’t undergo any kind of transformation. For all we know, Jareth flies to the next house over, happy to oblige another teenage girl who is wishing her annoying brother away.
From my youthful eyes, Jareth seemed eternal. Invincible. He was able to change shape and form, forever existing in a hermetical stratosphere. Throughout his career, Bowie did the same, always evolving, coasting along the cutting edge of pop culture, continuously modulating his sound and appearance. In the final act of his life, I had the intangible sense that Bowie didn’t die, but that Major Tom had decided to leave this dimension for the next one. The dichotomy between the immortal characters Bowie embodied and the flesh and blood man behind the makeup never fully formed in my mind.
When Labyrinth was released in the summer of 1986, it was a box office disappointment. Despite Bowie’s star power, it grossed $12.9 million against a reported budget of $25 million. Vying for young audiences’ attention, Labyrinth struggled to compete against The Karate Kid Part II, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Top Gun. Critically, it was met with a luke-warm reception, with both Roger Ebert and his partner in criticism, Gene Siskel of The Chicago Tribune, giving Labyrinth a two-star review: “The pathetic story in Labyrinth is a young girl’s search for her infant brother abducted by goblins working for an evil spirit played by, of all people, David Bowie. It has been said many times before in this space that the sight of a baby in peril is one of sleaziest gimmicks a film can employ to gain our attention, but Henson does it… what an enormous waste of talent and money.” The soundtrack, which featured five original Bowie songs as well as Trevor Jones’ score, failed to produce a chart-topping single and was criticized for being “over-produced and too self-consciously pop” by Adam Trainer of Senses Of Cinema. It would be the last film Jim Henson directed, and according to his son Brian, contributed to a downward spiral in his career. Bowie would go on to release his seventeenth studio album the following year, 1987s Never Let Me Down, which was critically panned. In a 1991 interview with Scott Cohen, Bowie would reflect on his mid-eighties output negatively: “You can tell I was terribly unhappy…I was in that netherworld of commercial acceptance. It was an awful trip. 1983, ’84, ’85, ’86, ’87 – those five years were simply dreadful.”
However, time has been kind to Labyrinth. After it was pulled from theaters due to poor box office performance, the film was released on VHS and Betamax. The advent of these formats allowed audiences to take Labyrinth home with them, an option previously unavailable. The movie rental industry had exploded, and by the early nineties, Blockbuster had become a multibillion dollar company. Much like The Dark Crystal (1982), another Henson family-fantasy film, Labyrinth caught the perfect wave of home media consumption. This undoubtedly plays into the devoted cult following of millennials raised on the film, their fandom so deeply interwoven with childhood memories that critical objectivity takes a backseat to warm nostalgia.
One of the main criticisms of Labyrinth is its mixed-messaging. What is it trying to say? Some have said that at different points in the film, Jareth represents different things. The creatures that he rules over are all drawn from Sarah’s fantasies, so is Jareth himself a teenage girl’s fantasy? And if so, what does that say about the labyrinth as a whole? Does it represent Sarah’s terror of descending into the adult world? Her terror of entering into a relationship with a man? When Sarah rejects Jareth, what is she ultimately rejecting? The themes of sacrifice and growth are present throughout Labyrinth, but the thematic message is often inconsistent.
Upon further investigation, it’s easy to assume all this mixed-messaging is the result of Labyrinth’s convoluted screenplay process. Between 1983 and 1985, the script was rewritten over twenty-five times, changing hands between the likes of Laura Phillips, George Lucas, and Elaine May. At times, you can feel the peanut gallery of writers playing tug of war with the characters and plot. In one of the final drafts of the script, the ending sequence in Sarah’s room takes place in the reflection of her bedroom window, (not her vanity mirror) and her friends from the Goblin City fade away after saying their goodbyes, leaving Sarah alone. During production, this scene (like many other scenes) was rewritten in favor of a more positive resolution, despite what it might contradict about the central message.
In her 2016 video essay, pop culture and art theory critic, Haley Baker Callahan, suggested that the film carries heavy feminist implications that contribute to its lasting legacy: “In this journey of self-discovery and maturity, she [Sarah] wins by rejecting the influence of an older, male, authority figure. Considering how the dominant culture loves to dismiss the interests and decisions of teenage girls, it’s a revelation how the film treats those decisions and interests as vitally important to the story…Even little things like Sarah using her lipstick and jewelry as tools
are validating her interests as useful. The main antagonist is just playing defense the whole time. The only win Jareth gets is when he essentially drugs her, which is unfortunately still very relevant. I think it’s key that the story doesn’t dwell on that moment, but [instead on] Sarah remembering her purpose and achieving victory anyway. And that victory isn’t won in a climactic battle or a tense game of wits, but a clear assertion of her independence.”
Whether one views the film as a heroine combatting patriarchal standards, a coming of age fantasy about the transference from childhood to adulthood, or simply as “that movie where Bowie has a huge bulge,” Labyrinth has continued to endure throughout the changing tides of time. Even at its most dated moments (i.e., the “Magic Dance” sequence), it remains a timeless touchstone within the family-fantasy genre.
Shortly after his death, I attended a David Bowie memorial party in Hollywood. People dressed up as different eras of Bowie. DJs and celebrities came by to spin his records. Labyrinth was projected onto the walls, playing on loop throughout the night. All the musicians and actors who attended said they started playing music or got involved with theater because of Bowie. All the smokers outside said they started smoking because of Bowie. All the girls waiting in line for the bathroom talked about how Bowie – specifically Jareth – was responsible for their sexual awakening. Everyone was crying.
A lot has happened since January of 2016. I’ll let you fill in the blanks here. Much like Jareth with his crystal ball, I’d like to think Bowie knew what was coming down the pipeline. Rather than succumbing to cancer (how earthly, how simply blasé), he made a prophetic choice to take his bow and gracefully exit this world, a perfectly timed premeditated coda to a career of self mythologizing. Just as Jareth chose not to move the stars despite having the power to, there’s a part of me that believes that Bowie chose not to stay in this plane of existence despite having the life-force to do so.
All these years later, I still can’t believe that he’s gone forever. But then I remind myself of one of the keynote lyrics from Labyrinth’s soundtrack: “It’s only forever/It’s not long at all.” And every time I see an owl, the child in me can’t help but wonder… | e hehr