We’ve spent a good amount of time focusing on how well the 1980s teen canon fares in the eyes of today’s teenager (played here, by my daughter). But the ’80s weren’t all John Hughes chestnuts about coming of age on the wrong side of the tracks, of course. There were other sorts of teen movies, including some that, like adolescents themselves, weren’t really kid films or adult films but weird and sometimes uneasy combinations of the two. Some of them were, for example, fantasias that combined human live action with Muppets, fantasy stories about sullen teen girls having to retrieve baby brothers who’d been abducted by goblins. And one in particular had Jim Henson Creatures sharing screen time with … David Bowie.
Labyrinth, not surprisingly, was a box office flop. Its demographic target was arguably old for Jim Henson and young for Bowie’s freakish sexual charisma—it was a confusing film. There were a lot of interesting pieces, but somehow it didn’t come together quite right.
Grace summed up the film in one word: “Uncomfortable.”
She sighed. “He’s amazing.”
“David Bowie could do whatever he wanted,” Grace said. “I mean, the guy was magical.”
“He… doesn’t belong with Muppets.”
“It works for Luke Skywalker?”
“Eh.” Grace frowned. “The thing is, this movie captures something that’s really realistic. Like, Sarah (Jennifer Connolly) is definitely a real younger teenager. She’s not an adult in a cheerleader outfit. This is that part of your life where part of you wants a boyfriend or a girlfriend or whatever and part of you wants … you know, stuffed animals.”
“I agree,” I said.
“Well, but we hate this part of life, dude! It’s excruciating to live it; we don’t want to watch it for two hours. The Muppets are too silly, and Bowie’s too real.”
“I still love the ballroom scene.”
“Oh, God, that,” Grace said, tugging her hair over her face. “Yeah, so it’s a little girl princess fantasy, but the guy who’s rigged it up is technically a monster, but technically probably also loves her, but maybe not, but he stole her brother and has no conscience about it, and is way too old for her, and it’s all molesty-creepy but somehow you end up feeling sorry for the goblin king when she rejects him? What the what?”
“Yeah, I guess that’s complicated.”
“Clearly, Sarah’s the one in control, and that’s what it’s about. But he’s … well, he’s pretty freaking manipulative.”
“And yet by the end you do feel sorry for him. Why do you think that happens?”
“It’s the look on his face,” she said. I knew the one she meant. It’d taken my breath away in 1986, and it still does. “When she says ‘You have no power over me,’ there’s that slowed down second where his face just goes through 89 expressions at once and you just think, ‘Oh my God, where did all that even come from?’”
“So you think he loves her?”
“I think he probably does, but that isn’t the point.”
“What’s the point?”
“That if you really love someone you don’t make them go through a labyrinth to get what’s already theirs in the first place. That’s cruel. And love’s not supposed to be cruel. I mean, what’s weird about the movie it that he’s so compelling, and so…”
“The word is sexy.”
“Well, yeah. But so he’s all that in spite of being, basically, like a sociopath.”
“Exactly. And what is up with a person who expresses their love for you by tricking you and kidnapping your brother and putting you through hell and then acting like you’re the mean one for not loving it?”
I had no response for that. Of course Grace was right, but I always, then and now, secretly wanted Jareth to Get the Girl. Which was messed up. But David Bowie was just so beguiling.
“The thing is,” Grace said, “I think even if someone’s a monster there is just something there. Like, we want to be that important to someone. When he sings everything I’ve done I’ve done for you, you know it’s not even true—he does it for himself. Maybe he even believes it’s for her but it’s not. And yet don’t we kind of want someone to climb walls and create entire worlds for us so we can be slow-dancing at the center of them?”
I could have denied it, but I would have been lying. Everything in me, even in 1986, knew I was not supposed to be enchanted by the smoke and mirrors, and I still thought if David Bowie put those laser beam eyes on me like that I would have happily signed up to be Queen of the Goblins. Some people just have a charisma that is downright dangerous. And being the center of such a person’s attention is a massive intoxicant. Especially when you’re a not-child not-adult being like Jennifer Connolly’s character.
“Don’t tell anyone because this is probably very uncool, but that’s always been one of my secret favorite songs of his.”
“The songs are good! It’s … actually maybe that’s the issue.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not him. It’s her. Sarah has not earned a love song like that. She’s childish and sulky and whiny. It makes sense that she’d wander through a maze with a bunch of weird Muppets. It makes sense that she’d be given a quest to get over herself and put her baby brother first for once. It makes sense that she goes down kicking and screaming on that one because she’s 14 and resents her parents and her stepbrother and her entire life because she can’t see the big picture. Bowie’s the one who doesn’t add up. He’s a badass goblin king, and she has not done a freaking thing to deserve that song.”
“So it feels uncomfortable,” I said, “not because the Muppets are childish and weird.”
“No. I think it’s because he’s too real.”
“Even in those pants?”
“Um, especially in those pants.”
Amy Glynn writes for Paste. As a teen, she never once wished a goblin king would take her younger brother.