As a huge David Bowie fan I was eager to discover what Bowie gems could be found within the Bill Douglas collection and this beautiful Labyrinth pressbook is one of the first items that I have come across. After a visit to the fantastic and hugely successful “David Bowie Is” exhibition at the London V&A Museum this summer, I have become particularly interested in Bowie’s natural ability to master and transgress all elements of popular culture, be it the visual, the aural or the written word. Bowie’s performance as Jareth the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986) is just one example of this and yet it is an extremely important one for the generations of Bowie fans that it has produced. With its captivatingly beautiful sets of the superb world created by Jim Henson and Brian Froud, Labyrinth was marketed as “a spell binding journey through a maze of magic, suspense and fantasy,” its key marketing strategy, however, being the presence of “superstar David Bowie.”
Unlike many musicians’ misjudged attempts at taking on Hollywood, Bowie is a natural for the simple fact that he is designed to be looked at. His self-awareness is arguably what makes him so fascinating to watch on screen. Bowie has always been an actor and through his performance as Jareth we see hints of the many famously donned and then tragically dismissed personas belonging to his back catalogue: “Ziggy Stardust” sits with Jareth on the throne of the Goblin Castle, “the Thin White Duke” dances elegantly with Sarah at a masquerade ball and “Major Tom” looks lost and lonely in the depths of the M. C. Escher inspired maze within the Goblin Castle. The role of Jareth seems to be an amalgamation of the world of Bowie, perhaps even a beginner’s guide to Bowie and that is why, particularly for a younger audience, this performance was so important. Whilst the world of the Labyrinth is all Henson’s, the film itself belongs completely to Bowie.
I know I’m not the only young adult in my twenties who was first introduced to Bowie through Labyrinth as a child and it’s certainly a performance that imprints itself permanently on the imagination. Presented as a cross between a leather jacket wearing James Dean and Cinderella’s elegant frilled shirt wearing Prince Charming, Jareth seems to be a former “Disney” character gone bad. Having rebelled against ‘the system’ he has found himself the leader of a group of goblins who themselves are the grotesque and rejected doppelgangers of Henson’s charming “Muppets”. With a cane that doubles as a microphone and outrageous hair and make-up, he is a somewhat androgynous and debauched rock star. And what could possibly be more attractive than a debauched rock star?
It is this, however, which is perhaps the fundamental problem of the film and its publicity campaign. Bowie’s roles and personas have always been about rebelling – about breaking boundaries and ignoring categories – and Jareth is no different. Couple this with a vigilant and arguably conservative 1980s film industry, particularly concerning children’s films which must send the ‘right message’, and you end up with an odd tension surrounding the film’s publicity and its marketed audience. This is evident in the Labyrinth pressbook. Designed to advise exhibitors on the advertising of the film, it contains a mix of merchandise available including a Jareth jigsaw, a family Labyrinth activity book, a sticker book and a children’s mobile. Competitions in which fans can participate are suggested, such as a Jareth and Toby “join the dots” and a “spot the difference” competition. The target audience is undeniably children, but the combination of this with the film’s refreshingly progressive and quite grown-up message, as embodied in Bowie, creates a relationship ultimately based on tensions.
I think, however, it is this tension and sense of rebellion inherent in the character of Jareth which, as a child, I found to be most attractive about the film. Whilst admittedly as a seven year old the film terrified me (I would hide behind the sofa when the goblins were on screen), I would watch it over and over again and I now realise that this was because I liked Bowie. I liked Bowie a lot. I liked the dangerous and yet compelling sense of rebellion that he emanates and the sense of individuality and transgression of rigid categories that lies inherent in his very being. I liked that this film was different, being a slightly distorted, slightly topsy-turvy world in comparison to the worlds of the children’s films I typically watched. And, of course, that which goes without saying: I loved the music –especially ‘Magic Dance’.
Ultimately I think the film does send the right message – it’s about family and responsibility. It’s also, however, about adolescence, hormones and finding your own personal, individual identity in a judgemental, austere and highly complex world. For this reason, for a generation of children, Jareth is a hero.