12 July 2009

In the lair of the Goblin King

51bM6oQOWrL._SS500_ On my most recent journey back from Wellington to Auckland I stopped in at Catherine’s place in Paraparaumu and we watched Labyrinth for old time’s sake.  I loved Labyrinth when I first saw it at the cinema – probably at the beautiful Civic Theatre in Auckland’s Queen Street in 1986 or 1987.  In fact, my geekish fascination with the movie led me to take fulsome notes throughout the screening, such was my keenness to fix every aspect of the plot in my mind, despite the cinema darkness transforming my handwriting into demented semi-legible scribbling.  We didn’t have a VCR, so I never got round to re-watching Labyrinth, but I did own the soundtrack on vinyl, and this got many plays in later years until I got my first ‘proper’ stereo and moved on to CDs around 1989 or 1990.

Jim Henson’s imaginative puppetry married with the traditional fairytale plot distinguished Labyrinth above other similar films of the time.  The script was written by former Monty Python member Terry Jones, and his fertile imagination resulted in a pleasingly unsentimental and slightly subversive take on a well-worn genre. 

The overall theme of the film is young Sarah’s quest to reclaim her kidnapped baby brother from the Labyrinth belonging to Jerath, the Goblin King, but despite the potential for gruesome monsters and battle scenes Jones and Henson were careful to avoid dwelling on conflict and violence, unlike many other films for younger audiences of the time.  Instead, themes of friendship, loyalty and betrayal, and the fleeting innocence of youth are at the forefront.  Even when the penultimate major scene of the film depicts a major battle in the Goblin City, the tone is consciously whimsical in nature rather than bloody.  In this scene the essential silliness and pratfalls of the multitude of goblin defenders are no match for the camaraderie and teamwork of Sarah and her puppet entourage.            

The film also benefits greatly from its casting.  Young Jennifer Connelly (who went on to win an Oscar for her role in A Beautiful Mind in 2001) is perfect as brave Sarah: clever but not smarmy or wise-cracking; pretty but not insultingly immaculate; brave but not all-knowing.  The character acts as the archetypal fairytale heroine whose exploits both entertain and enlighten younger viewers, who can identify with Sarah’s frustration at being left at home baby-sitting her little brother but might also arrive at the conclusion that Sarah’s bravery and ingenuity in solving the riddles of the Labyrinth are worthy traits to emulate.  Younger viewers might also have noticed that Sarah’s initial petulance and sulking (“It’s just not fair!” is a repeated fuming refrain) are replaced by a more mature outlook by the end of the film.

Indeed, aside from the multitude of obstacles the Labyrinth places in Sarah’s path, it is ultimately the tension between the comforts of childhood innocence and the temptations of the grown-up world that gives Labyrinth its surprising moral complexity, as Sarah finds herself torn between the safe embrace of her childhood fantasy world and the looming responsibilities of adulthood that the Goblin King uses to both tempt and taunt her.  He conjures a fantasy world inside a glass bubble, with Sarah decked out in stunning ball-gown finery and a frankly legendary hairdo, and then to cap it all off and probably make legions of ‘80s schoolgirls weep with envy, she gets to execute a stately waltz with pop heart-throb David Bowie himself.  It’s a seductive and artfully portrayed test of Sarah’s character and priorities – after all, the dream-like masked ball in the bubble offers the prospect of a gateway to the mysterious and tantalising sophistication of adulthood that adolescents so crave, but the underlying quid pro quo is that the bedazzled Sarah would have to abandon her baby brother to his fate.  It’s a beautiful scene, perfectly staged, and exactly in keeping with the swooning melody of Bowie’s ‘As The World Falls Down’, that accompanies the dance.      

Of course, no film released in 1986 and featuring a major pop star in a leading role could fair to attract attention, and Henson apparently had David Bowie in mind for the role of the Goblin King from quite early on in the project.  Bowie was an experienced film actor before Labyrinth, notably appearing in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and Julian Temple’s Absolute Beginners.  The advantage of casting Bowie in the role is that it lent his fame to promote the film – while Bowie’s star may have dimmed somewhat since his 1970s heyday, in the mid-80s he was still a major figure in the pop scene.  It also meant that Bowie’s song-writing could boost sales of the soundtrack, and in this work Bowie excelled, creating some of his best material of the mid-80s, working against the usual tendency for artists to lower their standards considerably for soundtrack work. 

Nicholas Pegg’s comprehensive book ‘The Complete David Bowie’ (published in 2000), describes the Labyrinth soundtrack, with its six Bowie compositions accompanied by Trevor Jones’ incidental score, as follows:

‘Jim [Henson] gave me a completely free hand,’ Bowie explained of the Labyrinth songs, which he recorded in mid-1985 before filming commenced.  One track, ‘Chilly Down’, features the same core musicians as ‘Absolute Beginners’.  Typically of Bowie’s work of the period, the recordings teeter on the precipice of disastrous over-manning, as a cursory glance at the appropriately labyrinthine credits will testify.  Co-produced with [Bowie album] Tonight’s [producer] Arif Mardin, the Labyrinth soundtrack is destined to remain on the periphery of Bowie’s recorded legacy, which is a pity because its better tracks, like the same year’s ‘When The Wind Blows’, hint at a fresh and energetic synthesizer-led sound of real passion and depth, far worthier of David Bowie than most of the overheated noises he was making on his official albums of the time.

Bowie’s soundtrack compositions are integral to the film and display a real affinity for the film’s ethos.  The theme track, ‘Underground’, appears in two versions on the soundtrack and boasts a powerful gospel backing choir including Luther Vandross and Chaka Khan, and Bowie secured the services of veteran blues guitarist Albert Collins to play lead guitar.  ‘Magic Dance’, performed in the film with a mass ensemble of goblin puppets (plus one human baby), allowed Bowie to display his talent for mimicry, as he provided the ‘baby gurgling’ noises that were required when a real baby clammed up.  ‘Chilly Down’ suffers from indistinct vocals provided by four voice artists (one of whom, Danny John-Jules, went on to appear as ‘Cat’ in cult TV sci-fi series Red Dwarf), with Bowie only singing backing vocals.  ‘As The World Falls Down’, mentioned above, perfectly complements the ballroom scene, while ‘Within You’, an ominous statement of defiance by Jareth against the threat posed by Sarah’s ever-increasing confidence, heightens the drama as Sarah encounters Jareth in a eye-bending M.C. Escher scene of garbled physics and confused perspectives. 

In the early 1980s Bowie had feared his career was operating on borrowed time, and launched into a series of more pop-influenced chart-focused releases designed to secure himself financially in the face of possible musical obscurity.  He needn’t have worried, given the ongoing popularity of his back catalogue continues to secure him new fans even as he enters his sixth decade in the pop music business, and his new album releases and tours still attract plenty of attention.  But at the time work like the Labyrinth soundtrack was seen by the so-hip-it-hurts music press as lacking in credibility: Pegg quotes the Melody Maker poking fun at Bowie by exclaiming ‘Eye of newt and tongue of mole, David Bowie has become a troll’. 

Despite this cynicism, the fact remains that the Labyrinth soundtrack is a solid piece of music in its own right, coupled with a strong acting performance by Bowie and others in a clever and warm-hearted movie production that has stood the test of time.  And on a personal note, I should probably offer the disclaimer that the Labyrinth soundtrack was the first Bowie album I ever owned.  Without it, I might not have gone on to discover the magic of Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust… (etc.) and the multitude of other Bowie albums that now form a sizeable section of my music collection.  Not bad for a soundtrack from a puppet-based kids’ movie. 

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