In 1984, David Bowie turned down a Bond movie. He had been approached to play platinum blonde psychopath Max Zorin opposite Grace Jones in A View to a Kill (a role that eventually went to the equally apt Christopher Walken). Cinema, Bond fans and the 1980s will never know what could have happened had Bowie teamed up with Jones to kick some Roger Moore ass down San Francisco way. But Bond's loss was soon a gain for a whole generation of mid 80s cinema-going kids who had often only heard of Bowie through their eye-rolling parents and those gender-dissolving performances on 70s pop shows. As Tina Turner was private dancing for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and Sting was killing both Frankenstein and journalists' goodwill in The Bride, it was Bowie who stepped up to dance (magic dance) with a motley crew of Jim Henson goblins, talking worms and day-glo banshees.
Ask anyone of a certain age about David Bowie and their instant mental touchstone is Jareth--the petulant but captivating Goblin King from 1986's Labyrinth. A sort of Rocky Horror Picture Show for elves, sprites, and all manner of eccentric imps, Labyrinth is producer George Lucas and Muppet man Jim Henson's fantasy ode to TheWizardof Oz and that rabbit hole of adolescence. With a script by Monty Python's Terry Jones centring on teenager Sarah (Jennifer Connolly) and her denim-clad attempts to rescue her baby brother from Bowie's goblin king, Labyrinth was a return to the guest star motif of TheMuppetShow TV series mixed with the rich fantasy puppetry of 1982's The Dark Crystal.
"Jareth is the Goblin King. One feels he rather reluctantly inherited the position of being Goblin King as though he would really like to be down in Soho," Bowie said to a BBC documentary crew in 1986.
Of course David Bowie was no stranger to the big screen. Nicolas Roeg's 1976 The Man Who Fell To Earth is now the stuff of indie-fare legend, 1983's MerryChristmasMr.Lawrence made him an early 1980s movie poster icon with that carefully poised POW hat and 1983's TheHunger saw director Tony Scott and Bowie turning the moonlight on vampires way before Twilight thought it invented the genre.
Director Henson always wanted a larger than life rock star to play his larger than life Goblin King. Add to that the scope for a soundtrack album that sidestepped the vaudevillian DNA of The Muppets for a soul and synth rock opera [and that codpiece!] and Bowie's stamp on retro movie culture was happily assured for generations. With the illustrious likes of Chaka Khan, Cissy Houston, and Luther Vandross on support vocals, Bowie recorded five new songs for the Labyrinth soundtrack-- relishing the soul direction he was pursuing at the time without the need to dad-dance shamelessly in music videos with Mick Jagger or downplaying the criticism heaped upon 1985's AbsoluteBeginners movie.
The burlesque anthem that is Labyrinth's Magic Dance soon emerged as the audience favorite (and still gets misquoted to this day). But the slower, more languid As The World Falls Down is perhaps the most Bowie. A last act lament set in a masked ball within a ball, it is a wild beat as the Thin White Duke's halogenic turns to camera compete with cackling, baroque extras and all manner of Venetian masked romance trapped in some Ken Russell nightmare. It is no mean feat for the mulleted Vulcan that is Bowie's Jareth to hold the scene and film --a sort of glam rock Obi Wan Kenobi stuck in a MC Escher world as he pursues a nearly underage college girl. And our parents said Ziggy Stardust was weird!? Flash forward to the Fall of 2011 and my man and I are at The Stud venue in San Francisco. It is a Friday night and the club night Some Thing is honouring Labyrinth for a Halloween special. Cue The Stud's David Glamamore in perfect Jareth drag and one of the wildest nights we've had as you realise a bunch of like-minded strangers also once magic danced around their lounge to Bowie and his Jareth alter-ego. Suddenly the spiky and lacy New Romantic leanings of Jareth and his wardrobe made absolute, drag sense!
The beatnik Henson, the anarchy of Terry Jones's script and the modish meets glam rock bluster of Bowie was a heady mix. Unfortunately the film did just okay business at the box office. David Bowie's mid 80s cinematic output will probably be better remembered for the song standards people have almost forgot were from films--Absolute Beginners (from the 1985 film of the same name) and ThisIs Not America (from 1985's The Falcon and the Snowman). Yet, like all 1980s cult movies, Jareth, Bowie ,and Labyrinth gained more goodwill and headway on VHS, TV, and beyond. Jareth is now the stuff of fan art, cosplay pageants, fan fiction, screensavers, tribute masked balls and there is surely at least one housewife somewhere in the world sporting a Goblin King tattoo somewhere she shouldn't.
Bowie went on to feature in more films. His final role as Tesla in 2006's ThePrestige is perhaps more fitting and notable than his curious turn as Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Warhol in Basquiat (1996). But it is Jareth that saw Bowie slip his own artistic leash and avant-garde comfort zones for a movie role that doesn't go away.
"You remind me of the babe....."
About Mark O'Connell
Mark O'Connell is a writer and author of Catching Bullets - Memoirs of a Bond Fan and Out's Tales From The Threshold series. He can be found at @Mark0Connell and markoconnell.co.uk.