David Bowie

David Bowie’s career has always had its roots in contradiction. Spanning over 30 years and a multitude of styles, genres and media forms, his work in the realm of music as well as in other forms of popular communication such as film, theatre and multimedia has often considered and commented on the distinctions between surface and substance, image and content, incorporating dramatic contradictions between the aesthetic and thematic components of his music. Both art and popular entertainment are ingrained in what David Bowie does. With his ongoing self-conscious fascination with the concepts of image and artifice, David Bowie as a phenomenon is primarily about performance. How is it then, that we can view David Bowie as an artist in the traditional sense? The answer lies in auteur theory and the way in which the concept of the artist has been reinvented via changing production methods, innovations in technology and shifting cultural regimes.

When we speak of an auteur we usually refer to a filmmaker, most often a director, whose work has dealt consistently with similar themes and displays an aesthetic style that can be easily identified as the work of that particular individual. However, the way in which meaning is made from all texts including film, has changed and evolved due to changes in the centralising powers of cultural regimes, methods of production and especially the flexibility of varying modes of reception. Hence there has been some revision of this term. Both Richard Dyer and John Ellis have written on the concept of the star as auteur, and in a response to Sarris’ writing, Mast, Cohen and Braudy have proposed that if Sarris means to imply that ‘the glory is the director’s imposition of ‘style’” then “the same can be said for any artist” (1). As Peter Wollen suggests in Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, “The auteur theory does not limit itself to acclaiming the director as the main author of a film. It implies an operation of decipherment; it reveals authors where none had been seen before.” Thus, when dealing with the work of an individual, auteur theory can be utilised to understand and critique the ideological consistencies within their work regardless of their role within the filmmaking process.

In this discussion of David Bowie’s cinematic career, the term “auteur” will refer to an artist whose work in various media forms has dealt with and been based around consistent thematic content. “It is certainly possible to establish, as ‘auteur theory’ enjoins us, continuities, contradictions, and transformations either in the totality of a star’s image or in discrete elements such as dress or performance style, roles, publicity, iconography.” (2) In this sense an auteur now becomes a cross-media identity whose work is of interest not only because it belongs to an identifiable personality, which is certainly part of the cult of the auteur in a cinematic sense, but because it may contain specific themes, aesthetic nuances or performance styles which remain pertinent to the artistic career of that personality across various media forms.

David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust

The contemporary realignment of auteur theory has replaced a concern with the filmmaker’s structural motifs with the study of ideological concepts manifested in different forms. Throughout his career Bowie has presented his motifs in the form of characters, personae and the performance of shards of himself. Cultural theorist Mary Harron: “How could the same generation who had made punk make commercial pop and still feel good about themselves? The answer lies in David Bowie and the tradition he created of pop as performance art.” Harron discusses Bowie’s alter egos as a tool for his own embodiment of the pop music process and “…its fickleness and restlessness, its obsession with surfaces and images, with glamour and unreality.” (3) These were also the ideals of the glam-rock movement, which Bowie helped to define through his use of costume, makeup and stage choreography.

Through advances in technology and the constantly shifting influences of fashion, cultural histories have changed and developed to the point where the links between texts, their greater cultural context and the ways in which audiences are exposed to these are now limitless. David Bowie’s constantly changing image has been manipulated so that it can swing from one end of the cultural and political spectrum to the other. Thus in the 1980s, by choosing film roles that incorporated particular thematic content as well as reflecting his aesthetic sensibilities, it was possible for Bowie to establish a more conventional “pop” image at odds with what had gone before. The film Labyrinth (Jim Henson, 1986) and its accompanying soundtrack are important to the way in which Bowie was able to accomplish this shift and fashion a franchise based on his own image.

The 1980s for David Bowie are often remembered by critics and fans as the great creative slump of his career. After his fifteenth studio album Let’s Dance in 1983, which was yet another considerable shift in image to tanned, clean-cut, middle-aged pop icon, made him an international superstar, Bowie’s music appeared to follow a particular tangent: that of predictable, inoffensive and somewhat unexciting soul-pop. Up until the early 1980s David Bowie had, whilst maintaining a high profile and achieving long-term, moderate success within the popular musical landscape, been something of a cult figure as opposed to a full-blown megastar. Let’s Dance certainly changed that. Nicholas Pegg states:

Success came at a price. Let’s Dance rocketed Bowie into the premier league of wealth and global superstardom, but it had an immediate and detrimental effect on him as an artist. It is a classy, beautiful, precision-tooled pop album, but its solid professionalism is its defining feature, and artistically it remains perhaps Bowie’s least challenging album of all (4).

It is this “solid professionalism” that would come to describe Bowie’s image and creative output in the following years. The cross-pollination of commercially viable media was intensifying in the middle of the 1980s, with MTV constantly expanding its monopoly on youth culture. It would appear that most of the decisions that Bowie made concerning his career during this time were professional decisions as opposed to artistic ones.

The Hunger

In 1982 Bowie appeared in first-time director Tony Scott’s erotic vampire thriller The Hunger as John Blaylock, an 18th century vampire living in present day New York with his 6000 year old lover, played by Catherine Deneuve. In the film’s opening scene, shot on location in London’s gay nightclub Heaven, the pair stalk hip young club-goers as Goth band Bauhaus, remembered partly for their schlock horror imagery, perform their anthem “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” in the background. Subsequently Bauhaus had their biggest chart hit with Bowie’s own “Ziggy Stardust” in October of 1982. It is certainly interesting to note the cross-pollenation of performance styles, the debt owed to Bowie, and the line of influence in British music from glam to punk and beyond in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In perhaps The Hunger’s most impressive scene, Blaylock ages 300 years in a single afternoon, requiring Bowie to undergo extensive make-up. The resulting scene is at once melancholy, uplifting and disturbing, with a few hours in a hospital waiting room ageing Blaylock over 50 years. Aged far beyond a natural state, he begs his lover to take his life and spare his suffering, but she cannot. He falls from a staircase and she places him in a coffin along with the bodies of her past lovers. This of course feeds into a theme relevant to a lot of Bowie’s lyrics: mortality, manifested physically as the ageing process. This was an element integral to the way in which his image was governed, precipitating perhaps the tendency to drop a particular persona before it became old. This constant “now” that manifested itself so petulantly in the cross-media pollination of style was certainly always present in Bowie’s approach to his craft, and witnessed in his jitterbug movements through music hall, acoustic folk, quasi-metal, glam, soul, funk, electronica, experimenta, post-punk and “precision-tooled pop” between 1966 and 1983. But in David Bowie’s music of the 1980s, for the first time in his career, it was possible to see a rift between history and the present. While there had always been a particularly picturesque flow of ideas as one manifestation of Bowie’s performance style morphed into another, in the 1980s Bowie’s music became for once anti-image, as the only image left to inhabit became the corporate sheen that was enveloping culture as the New Right grew on both sides of the Atlantic over a decade dogged by economic determinism and conservatism.

Embracing the opportunity to expand his celluloid exposure, Bowie followed The Hunger by appearing in Japanese director Nagisa Oshima’s World War II drama Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983) in a role with significant personal resonance. His character, New Zealand prisoner of war Jack Celliers, has a crippled brother whom he failed to rescue from a degrading initiation ceremony at school; he sees his own sacrifice to free his fellow prisoners as the opportunity to purge himself of this guilt. Bowie’s older brother Terry was a schizophrenic and spent many years of his life institutionalised. Based on a trilogy of short stories by Laurens van der Post and set in a prisoner-of war-camp, the film was co-written with Oshima by Paul Mayersberg, who had written the screenplay for Bowie’s earlier star vehicle The Man Who Fell To Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976) and who reportedly shaped the role to suit Bowie: “I wrote the lines thinking of David saying them and I semi-consciously changed things to suit him.” (5) The film dealt with themes of guilt and heroism as a release, and no doubt similarities between the character of Jack Celliers and Bowie’s own family history fuelled his performance. Comments Bowie made to British journalist Hilary Bonner at the Cannes Film Festival reveal his personal connection with the role:

I found in Celliers all too many areas of guilt and shortcomings that are part of me. I feel tremendous guilt because I grew so apart from my family. I hardly ever see my mother and I have a step-brother I don’t see anymore. It was my fault we grew apart and it is painful – but somehow there’s no going back. (6)

Whilst such personal motivations may or may not have been the deciding factor in Bowie’s taking on the role in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence the role certainly marked the end of a cycle for Bowie, his mannered yet thoughtful performance sitting alongside those he gave in both The Man Who Fell To Earth and The Hunger. In all three films he plays a martyr, sacrificing his life or some part of himself in a fateful situation shaped by powers beyond his control. All three characters have a quiet dignity to them yet all meet rather undignified ends. Bowie had laid the groundwork as far as his acting career was concerned, managing three very similar roles, all of which, despite their varied genres, were substantial (or insubstantial) enough to allow him to deliver captivating and graceful performances. As Bowie’s status as an actor became more established, he was able to move further away from the kinds of roles (which could be stylistically identified with the artistic persona that he had been occupying) and towards the mid 1980s he started to attempt more flamboyant roles in the cinema.

Labyrinth

The decision by Jim Henson to cast Bowie as Jareth the Goblin king in his 1986 big-screen, puppet-riddled adventure Labyrinth was a blessing. While Labyrinth is a children’s film, the parents of the audience, most of whom no doubt by this point had at least one Bowie album in their collection, were surely amused to see this English rock star take on the role of the mystical, evil king of the Goblins, ultimately doomed due to his dependence on the film’s protagonist Sarah (Jennifer Connelly). Equally or more amused perhaps would be the younger members of the audience by the constant array of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop puppets. Creatures as diverse as goblins, worms, talking door-handles and birds atop the heads of bumbling old men inhabit the Labyrinth along with Hoggle, Sarah’s guide (a gnome) and a gentle mammoth-like beast called Ludo. Accompanying them are the gallant and bravado-fuelled Sir Diddimus, a puppet dog, and his trusty steed Ambrocious, a real dog who is identical to Sarah’s dog Merlin in the real world. The only human characters in the Labyrinth are Jareth, Sarah, her baby brother Toby and the guests at a masquerade ball, a dream she falls into after eating a peach and an excellent opportunity for Bowie’s love-ballad from the accompanying soundtrack “As The World Falls Down”.

Labyrinth uses standard fairytale imagery to progress its plot, borrowing narrative cues from Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. The film opens in an English garden with Sarah reciting a passage from an old hardcover copy of The Labyrinth, wearing a medieval-style dress. As she is jerked out of her fantasy world by her barking dog and the tolling of a distant clock tower, she hoists the dress onto her hips, revealing blue jeans and sneakers, and runs home. The placing of fantasy elements within a realistic setting is important to Labyrinth‘s themes and style. There are references to “a wicked stepmother in a fairy-story” and Sarah’s room is littered with objects that refer to much of the ensuing action and many of the characters that she will meet in the Labyrinth. Frustrated with her baby brother, whom she has been forced to baby-sit for the evening, Sarah calls upon the Goblin King of her book to “take this child of mine far away from me.” Not expecting a response, Sarah is startled when, as a dark wind blows, Jareth appears in a sparkling black robe, wielding magical glass spheres and offering an ultimatum. Toby has been transported to the castle beyond the Goblin City and the Labyrinth, which Sarah must traverse in 13 hours before the child becomes Jareth’s forever.

Once inside the Labyrinth, Sarah encounters a multitude of whimsical and spirited puppet characters, including the companions she collects along the way. The world of the Labyrinth is one of fantasy and intrigue, where nothing is as it seems. There are challenges and obstacles, as in any narrative focused around a quest. Sarah’s attempts to keep track of her journey are thwarted, and Jareth appears and disappears at will to make the task more difficult. Despite this, the mood evoked throughout is jovial and playful, as the antics of the puppets provide almost constant amusement for the younger audience members. Yet the world constructed for the viewer is littered with darker touches. One interlude in the plot is an encounter with an old woman covered in bric-a-brac in a junk wasteland (juxtaposed against Sarah’s bedroom) in which Sarah is physically loaded with the mementoes of her childhood. Having been seduced by Jareth in the scene before and awakened both sexually and to her responsibility to save her brother, Sarah declares ‘It’s all trash!” smashing a mirror and falling back into the world of the Labyrinth to resume her quest.

Despite being an annoyingly slow change of pace (and no doubt a bore to the younger audience members) this aside brings significant thematic relevance to the text. Like many fairytales, Labyrinth is a coming-of-age story whereby the importance of accepting responsibility is emphasised as is imagination and maintaining ties to ones childhood. Although Sarah must leave the Labyrinth and the friends she has made there to re-enter reality as a young woman, her puppet companions reassure her that they will always be with her. The use of the stepmother character at the beginning of the film is a suggestion that Sarah is a child of divorce, as was Bowie’s son, Duncan Zowie Haywood Bowie, born May 28 1971 (7), and as were increasing numbers of children of the 1980s. This provides significant motivation for Sarah’s disillusionment with reality and desire to escape into a fantasy world. Sarah’s relationship with Jareth is another source of thematic intrigue, despite being an obtrusive distraction at the film’s climax and perhaps an unnecessary excuse to draw in a youth audience, who would be interested in seeing Bowie, now a pop idol, in a romantic role. It provides a new dimension through which both characters can be viewed. Sarah is an escapist, in touch with her dreams and fantasies but not with other people or their expectations of her. When Jareth offers her an ultimatum, she is confronted with her own self-obsession and, realising that she must accept responsibility instead of living in her dreams, accepts the challenge of the Labyrinth in order to rid herself of her childish self-interest. Inside the Labyrinth, she must for the first time fight for everything she has renounced in the past. Jareth feeds off Sarah’s weakness, her moral dilemma, and over the course of the film becomes smitten and increasingly obsessive. Jareth comes to need Sarah in the way that Sarah has always needed the Labyrinth in her mind, as a source of security and empowerment, but for the wrong reasons. The Labyrinth helped Sarah to escape her real life responsibilities just as to Jareth she herself represents youth, beauty and companionship. The final confrontation between the two involves a surreal chase through a three dimensional maze of stairs, doorways and arches, with Bowie singing “Within You”, a dark, tortured-sounding song of love’s betrayal. Throughout, the lyrics emphasise the lengths to which Jareth has gone to facilitate Sarah’s self-indulgent quest. Ever the manipulative cause of Sarah’s loss of innocence, he attempts to convince her that she has been selfish, that he has been the noble one in giving her what she wanted in the first place. But he has become trapped by his power and over the course of the film has developed an obsession with her. He implores her “Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave.”

The soundtrack recording of The Labyrinth, released to coincide with the film’s US premiere in July of 1986, features six David Bowie songs, interspersed between Trevor Jones’ score. The song that appears over the opening and closing credits of the film, “Underground”, was released as a single in June of 1986. It reached only number 21 in the UK singles charts, and heralded the beginning of what could be considered Bowie’s fall from grace in terms of chart success. “Underground” was the first of a string of single releases which did not break into the Top Ten, a trend which lasted for seven years until “Jump They Say”, a song about his brother Terry from 1993’s Black Tie White Noise album. With the snooty indie kids having abandoned him years ago and the teeny-boppers not receptive to his somewhat tired take on soul-pop, Bowie’s career appeared to wallow in the lower reaches of the pop charts, making him a steady fortune which built on the success of Let’s Dance and subsequent singles. His “Blond Fuehrer” (8) image and new musical direction had succeeded in allowing him to publicly renounce his past and seamlessly slide from the rock end of the art/entertainment binary to the pop end. For Bowie, Labyrinth presented a role offering worldwide exposure to which he was allowed to attach his own creative output (in the accompanying soundtrack). Given free rein by Henson, Bowie turned in six spirited and imaginative songs that, whilst presenting satisfying melodies and singalong choruses such as that of “Magic Dance” (a standout in the eyes of many Labyrinth fans, for which Bowie supplied the incidental vocals of Toby), and maintaining the clean, crisp synth sheen of Let’s Dance‘s production, were self-consciously pop and dangerously over-produced, thus making them merely pleasantly pedestrian. However, within the context of the text they work well, echoing its plotline and themes such as imagination, fun and fantasy. What’s more, the opportunity to see Bowie singing them with a chorus-line of goblins is staggeringly satisfying.

Bowie’s costume and hairstyle are certainly as memorable an element of Labyrinth‘s visual impact as any of its creatures. With his huge kabuki wig (a visual harking-back to the major stylistic influence on Ziggy Stardust) and revealing tights, Bowie’s visage is handsome, camp and slightly menacing all at once. His angular features give him a pixie-like quality, enhanced by the wig and the considerable eye make-up. His eyes, one blue and one green ever since a schoolyard fight, add considerably to the mystical appeal of his image. In a mainstream motion picture by a major US studio, the casting of an infamously androgynous British rock star as the Goblin King was something of an aesthetically alluring notion.

Labyrinth

Bowie’s decision to play the villain in a children’s film was certainly a concept linked aesthetically to the escapist notions of Bowie’s glam-rock imagery. As Hebdige has acknowledged, “Bowie’s meta-message was escape –  from class, from sex, from personality, from obvious commitment – into a fantasy past (Isherwood’s Berlin peopled by a ghostly cast of doomed bohemians) or a science-fiction future.” (9) In Labyrinth, the fantasy past that had been such a vital image to Bowie’s escapism was driven even further into the realm of myth and the supernatural. It was as if, now in the midst of the early ’80s media boom, the campy, kitschy androgynes of the Ziggy Stardust era were reduced to caricatures and reincarnated as commercially viable fantasy creatures played by puppets with Bowie as their master and king. The pied-piper of glam-rock who once led youths through the streets in bright orange mullets and platform shoes was now rallying goblins to destroy a girl in a mythical castle at the center of a Labyrinth. Bowie’s cult of escapism, of transcendance of the eternal “now” into something beyond culture or style, is part of the cult of Labyrinth. This notion is certainly an element integral to a significant amount of popular culture, especially youth culture and in particular children’s culture, which often occupies a curious dual-level status of appreciation hinged on temporal remembrance and dependant on popular memory: texts which, as well as having been conceived and produced primarily for children, contain some other element to which youth culture has developed an affection and hence attached a cult status. Umberto Eco has labeled a cult text in the following way:

The work must be loved, obviously, but this is not enough. It must provide a completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan’s private sectarian world, a world about which one can make up quizzes and play trivia games so that the adepts of the sect recognize through each other a shared expertise (10).

For an entire generation of teenagers and Generation Xers this process has become a common experience, as particular films, albums, television shows or any other cultural phenomena becomes another quotable link to personal histories, shared experiences and yet more cultural links, or what the Popular Memory Group refer to as “’the social production of memory’”. (11) Visit any Labyrinth fan website and such a world as described by Eco has actually been tangibly created and mapped out in HTML. For many children of the 1980s Labyrinth would become a favourite film and cultural reference-point well into the following decade. Much of this audience would in later years be listening to Bowie name-droppers the Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails, the latter headed by sometime Bowie touring partner and collaborator Trent Reznor. Again, rock’s chain of artistic influence shows itself. Bowie’s music did of course swing back towards a more “rock” orientated form in the 1990s and perhaps his success in the rock forum in later years can be partly attributed to his appearance in Labyrinth. With the veins of influence showing themselves in rock music more and more, artists who were at least partly privy to the blossoming of media influence in the 1980s were now becoming popular with their own bands and creating textual and contextual ripples of influence in the popular cultural landscape. “It could be said that in the mass media it is not invention that dominates but technical execution, which can be imitated and perfected.” (12) In the case of popular music, however, technical execution perhaps takes the form of providing aesthetic and thematic cues, which can be sourced to the concept of image. Performers communicate through their chosen image, and thus express not only the politics of their own texts, but of other texts that they have poached or utilised in some way, propelled into a more contemporary or personal perspective.

The cross-pollination of media forms allowed popular performers like Bowie to capitalise on simultaneous careers within several creative outlets, as image and the notion of personality became increasingly relevant to the success of a particular text or of any media entity. Labyrinth or almost any film in which Bowie appeared in the 1980s can be viewed within the context of an attempt to create an image that ran contradictory to so much of Bowie’s work up until that point. However, the way in which this image was manifested and manicured bears little resemblance to the methods of image creation of Bowie’s earlier years. Having proven himself as a successful recording artist with a significant cult following the urge to solidify mainstream popularity and, it would appear, make a lot of money, was all too easy to act upon, with the systems of media production at his disposal and an audience all too willing to invest in the slick soul-pop of a clean-cut middle aged pop star. The art/entertainment binary, which had been integral to Bowie’s existence for so many years on the fringes of popular culture, had in the 1980s been both reinforced, in Bowie’s move away from one extreme to eventually embrace the other, and made obsolete by the ever growing media monopolisation gripping the public and their formulation of popular histories.

Endnotes

  1. “The Film Artist”, in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, eds Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen and Leo Braudy (4th ed), Oxford University Press, New York, 1998, p. 580.
  2. Richard Dyer, Stars, BFI, London, 1979, p. 174.
  3. Mary Harron, “McRock: Pop as a Commodity”, in Facing the Music: Essays On Pop, Rock & Culture, ed. Simon Frith, Pantheon Books, New York, pp. 207-208.
  4. Nicholas Pegg, The Complete David Bowie, Reynolds and Hearn, London, 2000, p. 239.
  5. Pegg, p. 377.
  6. Peter & Leni Gillman, Alias David Bowie, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1986, p. 583.
  7. David Buckley Strange Fascination, David Bowie: The Definitive Story (2nd ed.), Virgin Publishing, London, 2000, p.106.
  8. Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Methuen, London, 1979, p. 27.
  9. Hebdige, p. 61.
  10. Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyper-Reality, Picador, London, 1987, p. 146.
  11. Popular Memory Group, “Popular Memory: Theory, Politics, Method”, in Making Histories, eds R. Johnson, G. McLennan, B. Schwarz & D. Sutton, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, p. 207
  12. Eco, p. 147.