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Finding Bowie in 'Labyrinth'

In praise of The Goblin King, now laid to rest.

“Everything I've done, I've done for you. I move the stars for no one.”

— Jareth, The Goblin King

I knew Jareth before I knew Ziggy Stardust, before I knew Major Tom or the Thin White Duke. When I first saw David Bowie, he was starring in "Labyrinth" as the king of goblins, his hair a too-blond waterfall, his eyes accented by two silvered wings sprouting from his eyelashes, a puffy white shirt flowing out of various leathers, first a jacket and then a vest. The king himself was as odd as his wardrobe, which today would be almost comical in how startling it was. This is the Bowie that I first knew as a hero, someone who led me through the dark kingdom of an outsider’s youth and promised something brighter on the other side. I was an '80s baby navigating the '90s, not good enough at the right kind of Midwestern weird. I was still looking for another world to escape into. "Labyrinth" has always been as much a movie about being found as it is about being lost.

It has become clichéd to love a thing that wasn’t loved when it first met the world. "Labyrinth" was a box office failure and a source of critical bewilderment. Even with my love for it, I understand how this happened. It is Jim Henson at his most wildly ambitious, bypassing the more cuddly and happy Muppets and instead providing a cast of creatures who, at the very least, could inhabit a nightmare or two--it is a children’s movie that revolves around a baby in peril.

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It was a world for some of us, though. A world unlike the one in which we existed, where we were the victims of punch lines and punches. A world much like the "Labyrinth" itself, where we could become lost, or free, for a while. I was a new and better self each time I watched the film, each time understanding Bowie’s Jareth that much more. He’s not a villain in the traditional sense. He longs for a different life -- this beautiful king with overwhelming power, drowning in angst and wanting to be loved. It forced me to wonder if my significantly cooler classmates worried about whether the adoration they basked in was genuine. As I grew older and became more athletic, owned better clothes, and learned to hold a conversation for more than 10 sweaty seconds at a time, I realized that the answer was yes. Jareth represented a lot of things, perhaps the greatest being anxiety over whether we will ever be truly loved.. Even as he slides across the screen in skintight pants before launching into the iconic “Magic Dance” number, Jareth never stops using his power over the goblins to make himself feel like a true king. He wanted to be feared, respected, but mostly adored.

Admittedly, I haven’t watched "Labyrinth" in years. I like to tell myself that I have never stopped needing it, even though I'm now a 30-year-old with more love than I deserve. I like to tell myself that my connection to "Labyrinth" wasn’t only about the brilliant costumes or the sweet sips of music that stuck on my lips long after each viewing. It was about the enduring permission to be strange, to still want to be loved and valued despite that strangeness, and to unashamedly revel in both of those things at the same time. It's a reminder that we all still need, even years after leaving adolescence. "Labyrinth" was the funhouse mirror that I could never tear myself from, the film that bent my reflection until I found one that fit.