Home > Reviews > LABYRINTH – Trevor Jones

LABYRINTH – Trevor Jones

labyrinthTHROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Labyrinth is a fantasy for children, an allegory about growing up, transitioning from teenager to adult, and assuming responsibility, dressed up as an adventure with monsters and magic. Written by Monty Python’s Terry Jones and directed by Jim Henson, the film stars Jennifer Connelly as Sarah, a typical American teenager, frustrated at having to baby-sit her young brother Toby. One night when Toby won’t stop crying, Sarah rashly wishes for Jareth, the Goblin King, to take the baby away – and, shockingly, he does. Jareth, played with dangerous sexuality by David Bowie, magically transports Sarah to his kingdom and tells her that she has thirteen hours to navigate her way through his labyrinth and rescue Toby, or he will be transformed into a goblin. As she makes her way through the maze, Sarah is both helped and hindered by numerous characters, including a cowardly dwarf named Hoggle, a kind-hearted monster named Ludo, and a courageous but rather dimwitted fox named Sir Didymus. The film is visually and conceptually impressive, taking inspiration from artists and authors as varied as M. C. Escher, Maurice Sendak, and Frank Baum, but it was not a success at the time of its release, only becoming a cult hit on VHS in subsequent years.

The music for Labyrinth was a double headed approach featuring score by South African composer Trevor Jones, and English pop music legend David Bowie, who wrote five original songs for his character to sing in the film. Jones had already worked with Jim Henson in 1982 on the score for The Dark Crystal, and so was a natural choice to score Labyrinth; to achieve a congruence of sound, Jones and Henson travelled to Bowie’s house in Gstaad in Switzerland, where he was working on the songs separately, and the three of them planned the soundtrack together.

Unlike most of Jones’s popular works up to that point, Labyrinth was electronic rather than orchestral. During an interview he did with James Southall and I in 1999, Jones said “Labyrinth is a completely synth score, but it wasn’t going to be. I would have gone on to add an orchestra to it, but we stopped for some reason. I think the producer said something. I’m really easily influenced by things sometimes, and the producer kind of put his oar in and made a suggestion when I was conceiving the score at the outset. Now I don’t have a problem with that – I need space to do my thing, and then people express their opinions – but this score seemed to stop at a particular point in its development and Jim said he quite liked it like that. At that point the score was on a par with the work Bowie had done on the songs, all instrumental and synthetic, and not orchestral. To a certain extent there might have been a slight imbalance in the texture if we’d have had rock music with orchestra.”

Anyone more familiar with Jones’s more large-scale orchestral works – Excalibur, The Dark Crystal, and subsequent scores like The Last of the Mohicans and Cliffhanger – may be surprised at the sound of Labyrinth. Jones uses a bank of three complementary synthesizers, and a pre-programmed synclavier, and augments them with a small bank of live solo instruments, including electric guitar, bass guitar, saxophone, and trumpet. The only real recurring theme is the theme for Sarah herself, which first appears in the “Opening Titles.” The theme builds out of an expressive, magical opening into a six-note fanfare with a heraldic flourish, alluding to Sarah’s love for that sort of romantic heroic literature. A more medieval sounding variation with a sampled harp appears during the end of the first cue, while later in “Sarah” it receives a much more dream-like extrapolation, with dancing synth flourishes and arpeggios.

The mystery of Jareth’s maze is explored in “Into the Labyrinth,” a moody and lightly abstract piece which increases in tempo, and becomes increasingly desperate, as it progresses, as Sarah becomes more and more frustrated by the labyrinth’s deceptive nature. Later, the “Hallucination” sequence allows Jones to go full-on experimental, with layers of glassy, watery synth textures, a wailing saxophone, and grinding electric guitars, that eventually emerge into a dream-like romantic sequence, soft focus and gauzy like a million bad MTV music videos.

The “Goblin Battle” is a frenetic, chaotic-sounding action cue with layer upon layer of bubbling synths, overlaid with an equally manic electric guitar element. This action music is really the score’s only misfire; it seems desperately unfocused, almost amateurish in its construction and execution. You can almost hear the genesis of the deeply personal, highly rhythmic action style Jones would later develop in scores like Dark City, Thirteen Days, and the TV mini-series Merlin, but here it lacks the precision of those later works, and instead comes across as the fledgling efforts of a young composer not quite knowing what he’s doing.

During the penultimate “Thirteen O’Clock” Sarah’s theme is warped and twisted under much more harsh and aggressive synth lines, before emerging as a bold and confident acknowledgement of Sarah’s victory as time runs out, and she realizes that Jareth has “no power over her.” The performance in the conclusive “Home at Last” blends with a gentle statement of the melody from Bowie’s “As the World Falls Down” song.

Speaking of the songs, the five Bowie-penned efforts – “Underground,” “Magic Dance,” “Chilly Down,” “As the World Falls Down,” and “Within You” – are all generally excellent, typical of his 1980s pop output, but with a slightly more fantastical bent. The main song, “Underground,” sees Bowie making a rare excursion into gospel music, with plot-specific lyrics, and an all-star backing group featuring R&B legends such as Whitney’s mother Cissy Houston, Luther Vandross, Chaka Khan, guitarist Albert Collins, and the Radio Choir of New Hope Baptist Church.

Two of them are dreamily romantic; “As the World Falls Down” features in the slightly sinister and sexually unhealthy masquerade ball sequence where 39-year-old Bowie tries to seduce 16-year-old Connelly with hollow promises of dancing, fame and glamour, and attention from a King. “Within You” sees an increasingly desperate Jareth almost begging Sarah to fall in love with him, following her through the gravity-defying catacombs of the castle beyond the goblin city; the four note rhythmic idea, and its nine-note extrapolation, almost become a motif for Jareth’s fanaticism, and achieves its intent of portraying Jareth as being a dangerous, obsessed, but ultimately tragic figure.

The two others are more upbeat; “Magic Dance” is a boisterous duet between Bowie and his goblin minions, featuring the timeless, Abbott and Costello-esque lyrical exchange about ‘you remind me of the babe’. The reggae-inflected “Chilly Down” is the only song where Bowie does not sing lead vocals, which are instead performed by Charles Augins, Richard Bodkin, Kevin Clash, and Danny John-Jules, the voice artists who gave life to the freakishly disturbing Fire Gang who could literally disassemble their own bodies limb from limb. It’s interesting to note that Kevin Clash is also the voice of Elmo from Sesame Street, and in this song he basically does Elmo’s voice – it’s quite a surprise to hear him doing the backing vocals with his familiar child-like falsetto and infectious laugh.

The Labyrinth soundtrack has been enormously popular over the years, but this has been due mainly to Bowie’s songs and to the cult status of the film itself. Trevor Jones’s score has been mostly overlooked but, truthfully, it’s not too difficult to see why it would not be as acclaimed as his more famous works. While the main theme for Sarah is lovely, it has not proved to be strong or memorable enough to really break out as a standout piece in its own right. This, combined with the ambient nature of some of the middle-album tracks, and the curiously clumsy nature of the action music, makes his work here somewhat disappointing, by far the weakest aspect of the project as a whole. Fans of the film, of which I am one, will likely find themselves drawn to it out of sheer nostalgia, but others who are more familiar with his more lavish orchestral works will likely listen to it with a mix of surprise and incredulity.

Buy the Labyrinth soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Opening Titles Including Underground (written by Trevor Jones and David Bowie, performed by David Bowie) (3:21)
  • Into the Labyrinth (2:12)
  • Magic Dance (written and performed by David Bowie) (5:13)
  • Sarah (3:12)
  • Chilly Down (written by David Bowie, performed by Charles Augins, Richard Bodkin, Kevin Clash, and Danny John-Jules) (3:44)
  • Hallucination (3:02)
  • As the World Falls Down (written and performed by David Bowie) (4:51)
  • The Goblin Battle (3:31)
  • Within You (written and performed by David Bowie) (3:30)
  • Thirteen O’Clock (3:06)
  • Home at Last (1:49)
  • Underground (written and performed by David Bowie) (5:57)

Running Time: 43 minutes 33 seconds

EMI America CDP-7463122 (1986/1989)

Music composed and conducted by Trevor Jones. Orchestrations by Trevor Jones. Featured musical soloists Trevor Jones, David Lawson, Brian Gascoigne, Simon Lloyd, Ray Warleigh, Ray Russell, Paul Westwood, Maurice Murphy and Michael Lewin. Recorded and mixed by Marcellus Frank. Edited by Robert Hathaway. Album produced by Trevor Jones, David Bowie and Arif Mardin.

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