In the wake of a posthumous Mercury Music Prize nomination for his final album Blackstar, has there ever been a better time to look back at David Bowie's film work? Beginning with The Man Who Fell To Earth in 1976, in which he portrayed the alien Thomas Jerome Newton.
The man born David Robert Jones, who'd had to adopt his more famous surname courtesy of Davy Jones of the Monkees, had been a student of Lindsay Kemp, focusing on avant-garde theatre & mime, training which would put him in good stead for a Broadway stint playing the title role in The Elephant Man.
In 1983 the man some dubbed the Dame could be seen in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence as Major Jack Celliers...
...In the same year he would also appear in The Hunger, the cult vampire film including Bauhaus' cover of his own Ziggy Stardust on its soundtrack. But for many, his defining role was that of Jareth, the goblin king from Labyrinth!
Bowie wasn't the first choice for Jareth, in fact Jim Henson had originally planned for the character to be a puppet creature in the same vein as his goblin subjects, but during pre-production of the movie the character underwent significant development, with Hensen deciding to cast a big, charismatic star to play the Goblin King, and choosing to pursue a musician for the role. Sting, Prince, Mick Jagger, and Michael Jackson were considered for the part; however, it was ultimately decided that David Bowie would be the most suitable choice. Hensen explained,
"I wanted to put two characters of flesh and bone in the middle of all these artificial creatures, and David Bowie embodies a certain maturity, with his sexuality, his disturbing aspect, all sorts of things that characterise the adult world."Speaking to Movieline, Bowie would recall how he came to appear as Jareth....
"Jim Henson set up a meeting with me while I was doing my 1983 tour in the States, and he outlined the basic concept for Labyrinth and showed me some of Brian Froud's artwork. That impressed me for openers, but he also gave me a tape of The Dark Crystal, which really excited me. I could see the potential of adding humans to his strange world. I'd always wanted to be involved in the music-writing aspect of a movie that would appeal to children of all ages, as well as everyone else, and I must say that Jim gave me a completely free hand with it."It gave him a chance to flex his not inconsiderable musical chops into the bargain, contributing five original songs in amongst composer Trevor Jones' score. Underground, Magic Dance, Chilly Down, Within You & As The World Falls Down the compositions in question.
Executive producing the whole thing was one George Lucas, interested in the potential of puppets following the success of a certain little green Jedi master after his introduction to Star Wars in The Empire Strikes Back & subsequent reappearance in Return Of The Jedi. As the Bearded One explained...
"The reality of the art and science of puppets, and trying to create realistic rather than abstract puppets, was really what Jim [Henson] and I had been working on from the very beginning. How can we make these look like real creatures? It’s a struggle because it’s a technological exercise more than anything else. Jim’s ability to combine old puppet techniques with state-of-the-art was his genius. He really understood how to make-believe and then make it real."As noted by himself above, when agreeing to play the Goblin King Bowie was on his Serious Moonlight tour in promotion of the Lets Dance album, which was part of an ever continuing shift, as Andy Gill - not to be confused with the Gang of Four guitarist of the same name - wrote for The Independent,
"[Bowie] was the first one to challenge them, the pop star who dared ask difficult questions about identity and art. And not simply in terms of fashion, although his ever-changing look was an obvious source of immediate appeal.
“The trousers may change,” he once said, “but the actual words and subjects I’ve always chosen to work with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety – all the high points of one’s life.”"
However, Gill saw Bowie's 15th studio album as the beginning of an end for his imperial phase!
"Let’s Dance presaged a downturn in Bowie’s fortunes. He later recalled wondering, whilst playing for crowds who’d come to hear his latest hits, “how many Velvet Underground albums these people have in their record collections?”.And in the Spring of 1985, slap bang in the middle of his Phil Collins years, Bowie headed into the studio for Labyrinth, performing lead vocals on four of the five tracks he composed, the exception being Chilly Down, which was performed by Charles Augins, Richard Bodkin, Kevin Clash, and Danny John-Jules, the actors who voiced the 'Firey' creatures in the film.
The disillusionment infected albums like Tonight and Never Let Me Down, which he would dismiss as his “Phil Collins years”."
Surprisingly, considering it's arguably the track most associated with the film, Magic Dance was only released as a limited 12" single in the US, Spanish and Italian markets, acting as a follow up to Underground, the song chosen as the lead single from the soundtrack album.
The track was released in June 1986 to coincide with Labyrinth's U.S. cinematic release, peaking at no. 21 on the UK Singles Chart. It was something of an experiment for Bowie, dabbling in gospel music to a small extent, helped by a large chorus of backing vocalists and blues guitarist Albert Collins, but retaining use of synthesisers.
Steve Barron directed the video clip for the song, which featured images shown in quick succession of Bowie’s most notable "roles", including Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, Thomas Newton, Jareth and Baal, before Bowie dances with the puppet characters from Labyrinth, and turns into an animated figure similar to effects seen in Barron's earlier video for Take On Me by A-ha.
Pretty nifty! But Bowie himself was not happy with the video, as he explained during a 1987 interview,
"I've found that the videos I put into other people’s hands have always been a mistake. Because of my lack of interest, I didn't get that involved with things like "Underground" which I did for Labyrinth. I just left it up, and the result is just not my kind of video. I was a bit lax there. I didn't feel involved."As The World Falls Down was mooted for a Christmas 1986 single release, as Labyrinth was arriving in UK cinemas. Another Steve Barron video was made, but the release was canceled for reasons that are still largely unknown. The video consisted mainly of clips from the film, and was later made available as part of a Bowie video collection...
Bowie long continued his association with films and their soundtracks, but never quite so prominently as he did in 1986. As well as Labyrinth, that year would see him release Absolute Beginners, the theme song to the film of the same name in which he played Vendice Partners, and later that year he'd contribute the title track to the British animated production When The Wind Blows.
As his character Jareth said,
"I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave."