Why the Goblin King of Labyrinth is David Bowie’s most important role
David Bowie has played many characters over the course of his career, but for many fans, one is the most iconic, the most impactful, and the most beautifully weird. And that’s not the one you’re thinking of. This is Jareth, the dashing antagonist of the years 1986 Labyrinth, which received a 35th anniversary reissue in September.
The more serious type of Scholar Bowie can get a little picky about Labyrinth. The film, arguably Bowie’s most mainstream cinematic role, has been glossed over in most of his major biographies, dismissed as the least of projects undertaken in what is generally (and unfairly) accepted as a creative dead zone between Let’s dance in 1983 and 1993 Black Tie White Noise. For the Mojo– reading, vinyl polishing, Ziggy worshiping sidekicks of a certain age, Labyrinth It’s too camp, too childish too idiot. There is more to it, however.
When Bowie’s death was announced in 2016, there was a short gap before the tributes when people refused to believe it, assuming his social media had been hacked. Bowie could not to have done something so boring, predictable, so frustrating Human like dying. He was an ether being, a meta-human. A fairy-like creature, not some mundane, normal guy who gets sick and dies.
But where does it come from? His music had not represented an image of ethereal strangeness since, probably, the cover of the album of Diamond dogs in 1974. At his commercial heyday of the 1980s, he was all in pointy suits, pointy hair, pointy chorus. In the 1990s it was edgy and chiseled style for edgy, chiseled music, and by the early 2000s he was a rock elder. How had this idea of Bowie as a mystical being from the void endured well beyond the 1970s?
The answer is Labyrinth. The 1986 Jim Henson film, which underperformed both critically and commercially upon release, has become a cult classic. The film is a world-building masterpiece of the genius Muppeteer Hensons, executive producer George Lucas, and writer Terry Jones – each no stranger to weaving their own realities – and updates the logic in reverse of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan. And, like many stories in which a young girl stumbles across a fantasy landscape, she draws a thematic line between childish wonder and approaching adulthood.
For many fans, Labyrinth was their first encounter with Bowie – not on old worn-out rock records their father loved, but in a fantastically sinister adventure tale in which he channels his ambiguity, magnetism, and subtle worry into Jareth: ridiculous and camp, true , but still threatening. The performance is brutal but somehow perfectly suited to the world she lives in, crystallizing her bizarre iconoclasm. Bowie gives Jareth a dark sexuality that we (and Sarah, the 16-year-old protagonist of Jennifer Connelly) are attracted as much as we are repelled.
This particular element is characterized by the focal point of her outfit – the bulging fly in her Regency-style tights. It’s no coincidence that the costume department spent days making Bowie’s bulge up and down to the waistline which, so to speak, would put the most emphasis on this point. Unfortunately, no one had made the connection between the presentation of Jareth’s crotch and the fact that 99% of the puppet characters in the film had a look at roughly the same level, which means Bowie’s bulge becomes a literal focal point for much of the film.
“Being introduced to Jareth when I was very young was formative in a way that I don’t think I fully understood until I was an adult,” says Mary Widow, a Boston-based burlesque artist who performed a routine based. on the movie Sequence “Magic Dance” for over a decade. “Here is this handsome, delicate and tricky god simultaneously embodying stereotypical” feminine “features – fabulous hair, makeup, razor-sharp cheekbones, slender figure, frilly clothes – with quite” masculine “clothes – the fly, of course, but also his command and domination of his kingdom, as well as the brutal construction of the labyrinth itself.
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As an adult, Widow came to understand the character’s contradictions, “Jareth being surrounded by Muppets made him ‘safer.’ He clearly didn’t feel like a villain, although by all logical standards – especially 21st century standards – he is. Jareth has become a gateway to understanding homosexuality and the growing fascination with adolescent sexuality.
And if that sounds like a familiar story to Bowie fans, it’s because that’s exactly what happened in 1972 when Bowie, as Ziggy Stardust, put his arm around Mick Ronson’s shoulders on The top of the pops, before pointing at the camera and saying to the audience “I chose you-oo-oo”, just a month after appearing in Melody maker mimic fellatio on Ronson’s guitar. These images printed over a generation; powerful, confusing, alien, sexy. The Ziggy Stardust era established a certain image of Bowie in the eyes of fans: the crossbreed glam-rock alien in the fabulous and extravagant costumes and makeup, the gold disc on his forehead, lightning on his face, the kabuki- inspired costumes; then appearing as a strange androgynous canine creature on the cover of Diamond dogs, until being thrown like a literal alien in The man who fell to earth. For the duration of his first great era, that’s who David Bowie was.
By 1986, the impression of the supernatural Bowie had started to fade; he looked every square inch of the clean-lined idol of the morning and even brought back the bisexuality he’d embraced in the 1970s in interviews. For a new generation of fans, whose thanks to the worldwide popularity of Let’s dance there were now several million of them, the image of the pansexual alien alien was galaxies far away from the Bowie they had seen at Live Aid, or on the Serious moonlight tour, or in the videos of “Modern Love” and “China Girl”, all healthy tan and groomed hair. Had that trajectory continued, Bowie’s legacy might well have been framed by the perception of a safer, more conventional rocker.
His interpretation of Jareth in Labyrinth, repeated constantly on TV and a personal video favorite, protecting the future of the bizarre alien Bowie. This meant that no matter what visual twists and turns in his career, no matter how old he was, one version of him captured and repeated over and over again would always be the Fantastic Alien, the Pandimensional Being, the Goblin King. Without Labyrinth, Bowie could have remained a mortal man. Instead, he lives forever as something more.
[See also: Jarvis Cocker interview: At the end of 1996, I had “a nervous breakdown”]