On the weekend of April 6, the Center for Puppetry Arts gave us a foretaste of a major exhibition on the 30th anniversary of the Jim Henson movie Labyrinth, from 1986, and featuring David Bowie as lead actor, singer and songwriter. The new exhibit will open Labor Day Weekend 2016.
Hastened by the sad news of David Bowie’s death, the Center for Puppetry Arts held four screenings of Labyrinth, which all sold out quickly, filling the center and the museum with hundreds of eager fans, most all of whom were not even born, or certainly only small children, when the movie was first released. Two special fans at the showing of the movie were Libro Musica’s special guests Lauren Souther and Kelsey L. Hughes. Lauren was the winner of the Libro Musica raffle giveaway for tickets to tonight’s show.
Based upon Jim Henson’s beloved work with the Muppets, Labyrinth was an original fantasy epic for the whole family — appealing to kids but sophisticated enough to enchant grown-ups as well. Packing in enough laughs and lighter moments, it was still dark and gothic. Teenage ingenue Jennifer Connelly entered a fantasy novel’s world to rescue her baby brother from the evil Goblin King, played by David Bowie. Virtually every other character in the film is a puppet. The screenplay was by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame.
Bowie provided six songs to the soundtrack (by film composer Trevor Jones) and sang in several production numbers. It was quite a blast to sit in the Center’s theater with three hundred people, some of them in full cosplay, singing along to these deliberately weird yet thoroughly catchy 80’s pop songs choreographed on screen by dozens of dancing goblins and monsters.
Labyrinth came along at a certain spot in the 80’s where electronic pop music briefly took over cinema. Orchestras and acoustic musicians went begging; most movie soundtracks were recorded by the composer and studio keyboardists programming sequencers triggering cold, harsh digital synthesizers and drum machines. Bowie, ever the musical chameleon, clicked right into this and seamlessly blended his songs and production into the soundtrack. In the few places where Bowie brought in rock guitar, live drums, and bass, it seems that they were processed and edited to sound as mechanical as the rest of the score.
Labyrinth and several other films of the era hold an important place in fantasy cinema in terms of its technology. Digital visual effects and animation were in their absolute infancy, and are all but absent here. Everything in Jim Henson’s world had to be done with puppets in conjunction with miniaturized robotics (and in a few cases, a human in a fantastic costume). One non-human character in the film might be a puppet controlled by two or three puppeteers using their hands and manipulating rods and cables, while facial expressions would be created in real time by tiny servo-motors embedded in the puppet’s head (or in the mask of a costume worn by an actor), all controlled by additional puppeteers operating consoles with joysticks and knobs. There could be many puppet characters moving independently in a single scene, and they all had to perform live with the camera rolling. What went on outside of the frame of each scene was staggeringly complex compared to what the audience sees on screen, but it’s all edited together into a fantasy world that you could almost imagine visiting yourself.
That brings us to the Center of Puppetry Arts, which has exhibited all kinds of material from Jim Henson’s Muppets since 2007. Last November they opened an entirely new museum wing, half of which is devoted to Jim Henson and each phase of his career. If you got to the Center early enough before each film showing, you got to stroll through these extensive exhibits and see the real puppets, props and costumes and learn about everything from the years before Sesame Street to The Muppet Show, through the major motion-picture fantasy epics Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, through Fraggle Rock and The Storyteller, until Henson’s untimely death in 1990 at the age of 53.
But the Center is pulling out all the stops (and wires, rods, cables and animatronics) for the Labyrinth exhibit which will open in September 2016. They will fill their special exhibit hall with puppets and set pieces from Labyrinth, long in storage in the Henson studios in England, and never before shown. The showpiece will be David Bowie’s restored Goblin King costume. And they know their target audience: the opening coincides with Atlanta’s annual DragonCon fantasy convention. At the Center for Puppetry Arts, they’ll throw a Labyrinth costume ball for DragonCon attendees.
Contact the Center for Puppetry Arts, at 1404 Spring Street downtown, and watch their website for more information.
Families, check out their annual membership which gives you entrance to their museum as often as you like, free admission to all their film screenings, steep discounts on their fabulous puppet shows and educational events, and preferential access to all sorts of goodies.
Thanks to Kelsey Fritz, Exhibitions Director at the Center for Puppetry Arts, for providing background on the Jim Henson exhibit and the upcoming Labyrinth exhibit.