Jedi vs Aliens - A War of the Worlds insight
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Liam Neeson and War of the Worlds - goes down smooth...
No one would have believed in the last months of 2011 that one of the most inspired and successful concept albums of all time, itself based on one of the most popular and beloved science fiction stories of all time, was about to be given an upgrade of planet sized proportions; but that's exactly what transpired when composer Jeff Wayne called a press conference on 18th November to announce the coming of The War Of The Worlds: The New Generation.
Thirty-three years after the original double album was released, a critical and commercial success that featured an eclectic cast including Moody Blues front man Justin Hayward, chirpy Cockney David Essex, Thin Lizzy rocker Phil Lynott and legendary movie star Richard Burton, Wayne surprised fans by revealing that he would be releasing a reinterpretation of his masterpiece in June 2012, to be followed several months later by an international concert tour in the winter (subject, of course, to the world not ending in the meantime if the likes of Roland Emmerich are to be believed).
To a major fan like myself, for whom the album has been a constant part of the very fabric of my existence, this immediately had me in two minds as to whether it was a good thing or not. On the one hand, I'm not averse to remakes and re-imaginings if they're done with good intentions and with genuine affection for the original source material (Zakk Snyder's 2004 take on Dawn Of the Dead and John Carpenter's classic retelling of The Thing (1982) being two cases in point), and was even responsible myself for a reinterpretation of Jeff Wayne's classic opus in 2006 when I set the original spoken audio (found on the seven disc box set – a magnificent beast) to a series of contemporary songs. Including artists such as Duran Duran, Nine Inch Nails, Chris Isaak and Depeche Mode (a creation popularly known as a mashup), the project is still there in cyberspace (at www.fettdog.com) and which I still get positive emails about to this day.
On the other hand, though, the most obvious and immediate issue was that of the iconic spoken words of Richard Burton, his deep, rich Welsh voice so synonymous with Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War Of The Worlds that to even consider replacing him would be tantamount to heresy. However, given that the archive of the late Thespians performance is finite, the decision by Wayne to expand upon the love story between George Herbert, the journalist narrator of the piece, and his beloved Carrie meant that he had no choice other than to recast the role. As he revealed at the press conference, this decision turned out to be the hardest one to make in terms of the new project, but one that he undertook knowing that whoever took on this most revered of roles would, in his own words, “have to be of no less stature and quality of voice than that of Richard – an incredibly tough act to follow.”
Way back in 1978, it was Burton's mesmerising baritone that drew me into H G Wells's classic tale when one of the teachers at my junior school decided to share it with the class over four lessons, each of which consisted listening to a side of the album followed by a discussion of the story's themes and then a creative outpouring as, inspired by the gorgeous paintings that were in the record's accompanying booklet and adorned its impressive gatefold sleeve, we drew our own (somewhat less accomplished) interpretations of what we'd just heard.
As it happened we weren't the only ones falling in love with Jeff Wayne's creation. Over in Dublin, Ireland a young actor who was to become one of the world's most famous movie stars, and mentor to (arguably) the most famous Jedi Knight in the universe, was also listening intently to the same captivating tale of tripods, red weed and the near extinction of the human race as my junior school class. As a result, when approached by Wayne as a possible replacement for Richard Burton, Liam Neeson didn't need asking twice, particularly because as luck would have it he had acted in a television miniseries with the late actor just before he passed away.
When Jeff Wayne announced that the recast role of George Herbert was to be taken up by Liam Neeson, I immediately felt a sense of relief, knowing that the Irishman's soft yet authoritative voice would be a fine substitute for Burton, and that short of perhaps Alan Rickman or Patrick Stewart, I couldn't think of anybody else who could provide both the gravitas and the humanity that this most important of characters needed to be believable. Just as Burton had been an accomplished and respected actor, Neeson has appeared in a number of iconic roles over the years, including his Oscar nominated portrayal of Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg's masterful Schindler's List (1994), Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace (1999), and the titular Michael Collins (1996) - as well as voicing the mighty lion Aslan in the three most recent Narnia movies and the father of the main character in the critically acclaimed video game Fallout 3 (2008) from Bethesda Studios.
With Neeson locked down as the new voice of George Herbert, I'm very much looking forward to seeing what Jeff Wayne is going to do with The War Of The Worlds, not only in terms of the new recording to be released in June 2012, but also the updated version of the already impressive live show which has been touring constantly since 2006.
After being the subject of intense rumours for many years, when Jeff Wayne finally announced that he was ready to perform his masterwork live in 2006 I couldn't snap tickets up fast enough and was fortunate to see the first run of the show at the Royal Albert Hall in London, a magnificent venue that provided the perfect backdrop to what has become a much loved and talked about experience.
The freshman run of the show featured not only a huge polystyrene recreation of Burton's head at the left of the stage - onto which a face double's lip synched performance was projected to impressive effect - but a full orchestra, original cast members Justin Hayward (as the sung thoughts of the Journalist) and Chris Thompson (the Voice of Humanity); original musicians Chris Spedding (lead guitar) and Herbie Flowers (the legendary bassist), celebrated singer Russell Watson (who, unbeknown to the cast and audience was battling a brain tumour at the time), and a thirty foot Martian fighting machine that belched black smoke out over the crowd.
Subsequent tours replaced the polystyrene head with a very convincing holographic Richard Burton (achieved using what looked to this SFX layman like a large sheet of plastic and a projector, but with astonishing results); more sophisticated special effects, and featured a succession of top rated singers including Jennifer Ellison, Jason Donovan and Alexis James.
With the advent of the New Generation, though, Jeff Wayne is not only revamping the story and music, but the live show is set to receive a major upgrade. As well as following in Burton's footsteps by appearing as an eleven foot high holographic 'head and shoulders', Neeson will also appear with CGI sequences on the 100 foot video wall and, in what is being billed as a world first in entertainment, as a full body hologram on the stage itself that will interact with the show's live performers.
Having snapped up tickets five rows from the stage for December's performance at London's O2 Arena, I'm more than a little excited about seeing how this will all come to life, and though we shouldn't really wish our lives away, I can't wait for the next twelve months to pass. In the meantime, however, I've got the new album to look forward to in June, and I think I'm fairly confident in saying that the chances of me not being thrilled by this new interpretation of Jeff Wayne's masterpiece are somewhere in the region of a million to one.
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