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4 October 2021

Why Labyrinth’s goblin king is the most important role David Bowie played

Without Jim Henson’s muppetry masterpiece, Bowie could have remained a mortal man. Instead, his legacy is one of ethereal weirdness.

By Marc Burrows

David Bowie played many characters in his career but for lots of fans, one stands out as his most iconic, most defining, most beautifully weird. And it’s not the one you’re thinking of. It’s Jareth, the dashing antagonist in 1986’s Labyrinth, which enjoyed a 35th anniversary reissue in September.

The more serious type of Bowie scholar can get a little prickly about Labyrinth. The film, arguably Bowie’s most mainstream cinematic role, is glossed over in most of his major biographies, dismissed as the slightest of the projects undertaken in what is generally (and unfairly) accepted as a creative dead zone between Let’s Dance in 1983 and 1993’s Black Tie White Noise. For the Mojo-reading, vinyl-polishing, Ziggy-worshipping acolytes of a certain age, Labyrinth is too camp, too childish, too silly. There’s more to it than that though.

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 couldn’t have done anything as boring, as predictable, as frustratingly human as dying. He was a being of the ether, a meta-human. A creature of faerie, not a humdrum, normal bloke who gets sick and dies.

But where did that come from? His music hadn’t represented an image of ethereal weirdness since, probably, the album sleeve for Diamond Dogs in 1974. In his 1980s commercial peak, he was all sharp suits, sharp hair, sharp choruses. In the 1990s it was edgy, chiselled style for edgy, chiselled music, and by the early 2000s, he was a rock elder. How had this idea of Bowie as a mystic nether-being persisted so far beyond the 1970s?

The answer is Labyrinth. Jim Henson’s 1986 movie, which underperformed both critically and commercially on release, has risen to the status of cult classic. The film is a masterpiece of world-building from Muppeteer genius Henson, executive producer George Lucas and writer Terry Jones – each no stranger to weaving their own realities – and updates the topsy-turvy logic of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan. And, like many stories in which a young girl stumbles into a fantasy landscape, it treads a thematic line between child-like wonder and oncoming adulthood.

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For many fans, Labyrinth was their first encounter with Bowie – not on some hoary old rock LPs their dad liked, but in a fantastically sinister adventure tale in which he funnels his ambiguity, his magnetism and his subtle disquiet into Jareth: ridiculous and camp, true, but still threatening. The performance is hammy but somehow pitched absolutely right for the world it inhabits, crystallising his weirdo iconoclasm. Bowie gives Jareth a dark sexuality that we (and Jennifer Connelly’s 16-year-old protagonist Sarah) are drawn to as much as we’re repulsed.

That particular element is characterised by the focal point of his outfit – the bulging codpiece in his Regency-style tights. It’s no accident: the costume department spent days enlarging and shrinking Bowie’s bulge to the size that would best, as it were, emphasise the point. Unfortunately, no one had connected the dots between the presentation of Jareth’s crotch and the fact that 99 per cent of the movie’s puppet characters had an eyeline roughly level with it, meaning the Bowie bulge becomes a literal focal point for much of the film.

“Being introduced to Jareth as a very young child was formative in ways that I don’t think I fully understood until I was an adult,” says Mary Widow, a Boston-based burlesque artist who has been performing a routine based on the movie’s “Magic Dance” sequence for over a decade. “Here was this beautiful, delicate, trickster god simultaneously embodying stereotypically ‘feminine’ traits – fabulous hair, makeup, razor-sharp cheekbones, slender figure, frilly garments – with quite ‘masculine’ ones – the codpiece, naturally, but also his command and rule of his kingdom, as well as the brutal construction of the labyrinth itself.”

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As an adult, Widow has come to understand the contradictions in the character, “Jareth being surrounded by Muppets made him ‘safer’. He didn’t feel like a clear-cut villain, even though by all logical standards – especially 21st-century standards – he is.” Jareth became a gateway to understanding queerness and the mounting fascination that sexuality represents during adolescence.

And if that sounds like a familiar story for Bowie fans, it’s because it’s exactly what happened in 1972 when Bowie, as Ziggy Stardust, draped his arm around Mick Ronson’s shoulders on Top of the Pops, before pointing into the camera and telling the audience “I picked on you-oo-oo”, just a month after appearing in Melody Maker miming fellatio on Ronson’s guitar. Those images imprinted on a generation; powerful, confusing, alien, sexy. The Ziggy Stardust era established a certain image of Bowie in the eyes of fans: the gender-blending glam-rock alien in the fabulous, extravagant costumes and makeup, the gold disc on the forehead, the lightning bolt across the face, the kabuki-inspired costumes; then appearing as a strange androgynous canine creature on the cover of Diamond Dogs, right up to being cast as 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 unearthly Bowie had started to fade; he looked every inch the clean-cut matinee idol and was even rowing back the bisexuality he had embraced in the 1970s in interviews. For a new generation of fans, of whom thanks to the global popularity of Let’s Dance there were now many millions, the image of the pansexual alien outsider was galaxies away from the Bowie they saw at Live Aid, or on the Serious Moonlight tour, or in the videos to “Modern Love” and “China Girl”, all healthy of tan and neat of hair. Had that trajectory continued, Bowie’s legacy may well have been framed by the perception of a safer, more conventional rocker.

His performance as Jareth in Labyrinth, repeated on TV constantly and a home video favourite, future-proofed the alien weirdo Bowie. It meant that, whatever visual twists and turns his career took, however he aged, a version of him captured and repeated endlessly would always be the fantastic outsider, the pan-dimensional 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”]