Michael Jackson, Monty Python and Bowie’s trousers: the chaotic making of Labyrinth

Ed Power
David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly in Jim Henson's Labyrinth - Moviepix/Getty

On a hot summer night in 1985, in a studio at Atlantic Records in Manhattan, David Bowie was trying to make a baby gurgle. 

“He couldn’t put his gurgles together,” lamented Bowie who, having collaborated with Lou Reed, Freddie Mercury and Mick Jagger, knew a thing or three about working with awkward customers. “He really buttoned his lips. I ended up doing the gurgles.” 

The infant was there with his mother, a backing singer working with Bowie on his new song, Magic Dance. Coming out of left-field, as was Bowie’s wont, the tune was an homage to the 1947 Cary Grant and Shirley Temple screwball comedy, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, about a teenager’s crush on an older man. 

“You remind me of the man,” Grant (42) tells Temple (18) in one scene. “What man?” she asks. “The man with the power,” he replies, adding: “The power of hoodoo.” “Hoodoo…?” “You do!”

Bowie, being Bowie, mixed it up and threw fistfuls of glitter on. “You remind me of the babe,” he sings. “The babe with the power… the power of voodoo.” And in the video accompanying the completed song, Bowie serenades a room of latex goblins designed by Muppet magister Jim Henson. The singer even kicks one, sending it flying across the room. 

“I’ve done laughing gnomes,” he reflected later in his dressing room at Elstree Studios. “I never thought 20 years later I’d end up going back to working with gnomes.”

To be precise, there weren’t any gnomes in the film for which the song was made, Jim Henson’s fantasy adventure Labyrinth. There were, however, lots of rubber goblins. Bowie, 38 and squeezed into pop’s tightest trousers, played Jareth, their evil king. He’s summoned by Sarah, a spoiled teenager (14-year-old Jennifer Connelly), who wishes that her baby half-brother Toby would be taken away “by the goblins”. 

She instantly regrets her decision. Being a decent sort, Jareth gives Sarah 13 hours to solve his magical labyrinth and reach Toby. If she fails, the poppet will be transformed into a goblin forever. “Turn back, Sarah. Turn back before it’s too late,” Jareth tells her, as he fades from view. (This may have been a metaphor for where Bowie’s career was headed in the 1980s.)

The Labyrinth soundtrack was not well received by Bowie fans. They dismissed it as silly and slight – songs for children. In other words, precisely the record Bowie had set out to make. 

Bowie, though, got off lightly compared to Henson. Labyrinth was savaged by critics as “too complicated”, “ugly” and even “sleazy”. The public agreed. The film was released on June 27 1986 and earned less than half its $26 million (£21 million) budget. It was such a disaster that TriStar pulled it from American cinemas after just three weeks. 

The impact on Henson was devastating. He had long craved recognition as a serious artist, rather as merely the creator of the Muppets and of Sesame Street characters such as Cookie Monster and The Count. But Labyrinth had crashed and burned just a few years after another mega-flop, 1982’s The Dark Crystal. “Jim Henson” and “serious cinema” were becoming a contradiction in terms. 

Henson would pass away suddenly four years later, aged just 53. Labyrinth was his final film. So he never had an opportunity to witness its remarkable critical rehabilitation, or to watch it belatedly turn a profit. Despite being a box-office bomb at the box office, Labyrinth went on to become a huge money spinner on VHS and, especially, DVD, as it was embraced by Millennials who didn’t have an opportunity to see it first time around. Now, after years of speculation we finally have official confirmation of a sequel, to be directed by Doctor Strange's Scott Derrickson.

Muppets creator Jim Henson was devastated by Labyrinth's failure - PA

And as Jennifer Connelly makes her return to the screen in Netflix’s Snowpiercer, Labyrinth is still regarded as among her biggest roles. (Go on, name three Jennifer Connelly films. Labyrinth was first or second, wasn’t it?)  

Labyrinth has also contributed to the mythology of Bowie, known to many younger people less as the Thin White Duke and more as the mega-mulleted weirdo who steals baby Toby for the goblin hordes. Following his death in 2016, one of the ways in which fans paid tribute was by attending Labyrinth screenings. 

So it’s ironic that, had Henson had his way, Jareth’s mighty cod-piece wouldn’t have even gone to Bowie. The puppeteer was adamant he wanted Michael Jackson or Sting for the part. It was his son Brian, hipper to the groove than his dad, who talked him around. 

“When we first started to write the film we had an evil goblin king,” Jim Henson would remember. “Quite early on we said, what if he were a rock singer? A contemporary figure… Who? Michael Jackson, Sting, David Bowie – there are only a few people you would think of.”

Sting was the flavour of the hour. But Bowie, Brian Henson argued, was eternal. Convinced by his son, Jim sought out Bowie and met him backstage on the American run of his 1983 Serious Moonlight Tour. 

“They brought me the concept,” said Bowie. “[Henson] showed me The Dark Crystal,which I found a fascinating piece of work. And I could see the potentiality of making that kind of movie, with humans, songs, more of a lighter comedy.”

For Bowie, Labyrinth was an opportunity to indulge his theatrical side – the ripple of panto that ran through so much of his work. He’d always wanted to make a record for kids. Now he finally had a chance. But for Henson the movie was a shot at redemption. 

He had staked his reputation on The Dark Crystal, a dense, weird phantasmagoria that barely turned a profit and was dismissed by reviewers as dull and baffling. Henson had pushed for years to get it made. He took its failure personally.

Bowie in 1983, during the Serious Moonlight tour; he was seeking mainstream success - Getty

 

Alas, Henson proceeded to listen to his critics. The complaint about The Dark Crystal was it lacked the fun of the Muppets. There were no songs, no humour; people couldn’t get their heads around that. Labyrinth, he resolved, would put the baby back in with the bathwater. Plus, it had David Bowie in tight bloomers. What could possibly go wrong? 

Lots, it turned out. Labyrinth’s fatal flaw was that, although the production design and cast were top-notch, the script was threadbare. Really, it was just an idea – Bowie as King of the Goblins, with the story and dialogue an afterthought. 

“I had an instant vision of a baby surrounded by goblins, which I thought would look really striking,” recalled Brian Froud, the fantasy artist with whom Henson cooked up the concept. (Froud’s 18-month-old son, Toby, played the infant that Jareth kidnaps and flings playfully into the air during Magic Dance.) 

“In European fairy tales, that’s what goblins do – they steal babies. I painted a picture of a baby surrounded by goblins, and then continued to paint other conceptual things, just ideas for characters. And the story developed from there.”

Working from this initial idea, Froud and Henson handed off the task of putting flesh and bones on the script to Dennis Lee, the poet and children’s author. But after Lee had submitted his draft, Henson felt more work was needed. So he reached out to Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. Coincidentally, Jones had been trying to get hold of Henson, with a view to collaborating on a big screen version of his children’s tale, Erik the Viking. 

“I was adapting my book, Erik the Viking, into a film, and I thought I’d ring Jim Henson’s office to see if they’d like to do the monsters,” Jones told Empire magazine. 

“And they said they’d just been trying to get hold of me the day before! Jim’s daughter Lisa had read Erik and said I might be a good fit for Labyrinth. Jim came round to my house in Camberwell and I remember he couldn’t take his eyes off our dog, which was a long-haired Jack Russell terrier. It eventually became the basis for the knight, Sir Didymus. Mitch the Bitch was immortalised in Muppet form!”

Jones was put to work on Lee’s script. He was surprised to discover that it was essentially a “poetic novella”. Most of that was thrown out by Jones, who envisaged the film as having an environmental message. He was also keen to keep the Goblin King off-screen for most of the movie. This would have left David Bowie, and his trousers, at a bit of a loose end. Henson was not enthused. 

“Jim said he wanted it to be more a young girl’s coming-of-age story,” Jones remembered to Empire, “and he wanted to show the centre of the labyrinth sooner, because he wanted to play around a lot there. I really thought we shouldn’t see the centre of the labyrinth before the girl does, otherwise what’s the hook for the audience? 

“The other thing, of course, was that Jim wanted to approach Michael Jackson or David Bowie to play Jareth, and have him sing and appear all the way through.” 

Jones and Henson agreed to disagree, and went their separate ways. George Lucas, creator of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, was co-producing Labyrinth, and weighed in with his own contributions to the script. These were incorporated into one of several rewrites, which tilted the plot closer to Henson’s initial vision. 

The problem was that, after all the cobbling together, the story had lost any sense of fun. Henson remembered only too well that The Dark Crystal had been strung up by critics for being too serious. So he called Terry Jones again and wondered if he might be interested in a further rewrite. Maybe he could bung in some of the jokes that had been subsequently expunged. He’d even give the Monty Python man sole screenwriting credits. 

Jones agreed, though he quickly realised there was only so much he could do. 

“It sort of fell between two stools,” Jones said to Empire. “It didn’t really end up as the story I wanted to tell, but I don’t know if it was quite the story Jim imagined either. I think I was a bit nervous about how much of what I wrote would end up in the film, but it does mostly resemble my second draft….The Bog of Eternal Stench? Yes, that sounds like me!”

Henson was on surer ground in the technical aspects of Labyrinth, filmed at Elstree Studios’s hulking stage six, where Lucas had, just a few years previously, overseen The Empire Strikes Back. In the Magic Dance scene, Bowie acts against 50 puppets. The song is ludicrous but fantastically so; the puppetry suggests a halluctionary mash-up of Sesame Street and Hieronymus Bosch. 

“Real crazy,” said Brian Henson at the time. “When you take the puppets out of the set it looks like Swiss cheese. There are holes everywhere.” Henson Jr himself voiced Hoggle, the kindly dwarf who helps Sarah out. In all, eight puppeteers were required to operate this creature.

Brian Henson's character Hoggle required eight puppeteers to operate - Film Stills

Such were the challenges that had attracted everyone to the project. “The reality of the art and science of puppets, and trying to create realistic rather than abstract puppets, was really what Jim and I had been working on from the very beginning,” said George Lucas at the time. 

“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 [ones] was his genius. He really understood how to [do] make-believe and then make it real.”

At its heart, Froud and Henson believed, Labyrinth is a movie about a girl growing up. In a way, Connelly’s character Sarah is a mirror image of Jareth: both are immature, temperamental and peevish. Jareth, after all, only takes baby Toby because Sarah, in a strop, wishes he was gone. 

Moreover, it’s implied that all of the characters we meet in the Labyrinth come from Sarah’s imagination. We see stuffed-toy versions of them in the childhood bedroom that she’s starting to outgrow. In the masked ball scene in which she dances with the Goblin King, Labyrinth is explicit about her being an adolescent thrust into an adult world she doesn’t comprehend. 

Bowie, as ever, was hipper to this than anyone else, which is why he slipped in a reference to The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. And perhaps that’s why Labyrinth has lived on: it’s a rare Hollywood movie that takes seriously the experience of being a young woman finding her way in the world. 

“We’re not looking at reality, we’re inside this girl’s head,” said Froud, asked about Bowie’s aerodynamic jodhpurs. “There are references to all sorts of things in his costume. There’s the danger of a leather boy in his leather jacket, which also has a reference to the armour of a certain type of German knight in it; there are references to Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights; and the tight trousers are a reference to ballet dancers. 

“He’s an amalgam of the inner fantasies of this girl. Everyone always talks about Bowie’s pervy pants, but there was a reason for it all! It has a surface that’s fairly light, but then every so often you go: ‘Oh, my God! How did we get away with that?’”