Back in 1978, a virtually unknown young musician named Jeff Wayne shocked everyone when he released a concept album based on H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.
And not just any concept album, but something unprecedented: the one that defined what a concept album was supposed to be.
He’d been a producer and had scored movies, written TV themes and even wrote the score for a moderately successful musical but had never put out an album before. Somehow, he got Sir Richard Burton to narrate, and his friends Justin Hayward (of the Moody Blues) and David Essex to sing, then put them all together in a monumental effort that combined both rock and orchestral music. It follows most of the novel’s plot, as the narrator sees the coming of the Martians, flees for his life, meeting various characters on his way, before reaching London in time to witness their death.
It was a huge success, and two of the songs – “The Eve of the War” and “Forever Autumn” became hit singles.
Almost thirty years later, in 2004. Jeff decided to make an CGI animated film version. While he was still struggling with that project (which ultimately vanished without a trace), he decided to put together a stage show version, which used the snippets of animation he’d created.
Which naturally led to a direct-to-video film of the stage production.
The first thing one notes is the sheer size of this production: Jeff conducts, with several featured singers, a forty-eight piece string section and a further ten musicians in a rock band. There is a huge screen for the onstage videos, which not only feature those animated sequences and a lot of archival footage, but a large cast as well — and one major character who never shows up on stage. Add to this a full sized Martian war machine based on the album’s iconic cover illustration (which doesn’t do much), several large pieces of movable scenery, and plenty of dramatic lighting.
Even though he’d died in 1984, Richard Burton was still present as the narrator, in the form of a giant head on which his face was projected (with the mouth animated to match the narration). The effect is somewhat creepy and the mouth movements look rather limited but Burton’s narration is basically perfect, so I’m willing to ignore it (the so-called “Next Generation” version of the show replaced him with Liam Neeson, who simply isn’t as good. Nor is he touring with the show, either. Instead, he also appears as a giant head, as well as an on-stage hologram and in the background video. I’m not sure that’s much of an improvement).
This is not a simple repeat of the old familiar story: Jeff’ finds some interesting corners of the story to explore: fleshing out one of the characters from the book, the Curate (Parson Nathaniel here), who gets a backstory and a wife; giving the Artilleryman a rollicking song (although I’m a touch disappointed that he leaves out the line from the novel about turning the Martians’ weapons on men); then there’s the familiar coda from the original album; and a strong intro from the viewpoint of the Martians, which he originally developed while he was working on the videogame (yes, there was a videogame. Really).
I have to confess, after all these years of hearing the notion that we will someday evolve past the need for violence in SF story after SF story, it is a real pleasure to hear the Martians decide in the most impartial and rational way imaginable to wipe us all out. Hey, nothing to get too worked up about, right? They need what we have.
The show itself is stellar, with a lot of drive in the more dramatic sections, and a touch of tenderness in the quieter moments. I’ve always found live albums a bit lacking. There’s something you get from actually being there in the stadium that gets lost along the way, and they can’t match the polished perfection of the studio version no matter how hard they try (not unless you’re Milli Vanilli, that is). But the film is so well done that one does get at least some sense of what it would have been like to have been in that audience. Some of the tracks do seem to go on longer than they should: we all know that songs often get stretched out with all sorts of showy instrumentals when performed live, but at least this one wan’t as self-indulgent as some of them have been. It helps that the video cuts in much of the actual background footage (although some of it is still seen on the big screens), and adds a few visual effects on top of the concert video. Thanks to the sheer size of his orchestra, there is a richness and depth of feeling to the music. While I haven’t compared the two, it sounds just the way I remember the album sounding. Which is what counts.
It isn’t the animated film Jeff promised. Which, yes, is a shame. One hopes that it might happen, someday, with or without Richard Burton (although it looks very unlikely), but his stage show — and this excellent video — do at least hint at what such a film might look like. Yes, some of the animation — which dates back fourteen years — looks horribly dated, is very shiny, and lacks detail, but its cartoony quality fits into the look and feel of this deliberately artificial production (after all, it is primarily a stage show!)
If you loved his album, then you’ll need to at least see this.
And if you haven’t?
Then it will act as a solid introduction to an interesting work.
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