Film doesn’t get more real than documentary and, in particular, Natural History. The BBC has been at the forefront of Natural History filmmaking for decades and they continue to raise the bar with ever more impressive footage of our world, often using the latest technology to make it ever more real in our living rooms.
The Blue Planet remains one of the most incredible of their series so far, as over thirteen episodes we were given an all access pass to the planet’s oceans. Five years in the making, the team shot seven thousand hours of footage. Months later composer George Fenton created what would be perhaps his most enduring work; recorded by the BBC Concert Orchestra it gave the series its emotional heart. The music is at times deep, powerful, majestic, bold, playful and humorous, and those of you who have been lucky enough to attend ‘The Blue Planet Live!’ will know that those things come across with a weighty punch in the concert hall.
George Fenton has been on the road with his music for a week or so now and I caught up with the tour in Cardiff. Having had the opportunity to speak with the composer about the concert, I knew I was in for something special; and special it was, as the 80-strong BBC Concert Orchestra recreated their original performance, helped by four singers, in front of stunning images from the groundbreaking series. This wasn’t just a concert of music though; it was a live condensed version of the series in many ways. Our presenter, the BBC’s Kate Humble, introduced various segments, highlighting the habitat, behaviour or drama we were about to witness. The giant screen (which wasn’t quite as massive as I’d imagined) flickered into life and George struck up the orchestra, who didn’t just play background music, they scored the footage just as they would have on the scoring stage. As a fan of the music, I expected to appreciate the screen, but really be watching George and the orchestra; however, it was sometimes impossible to tear your eyes away from the film, so awesome and powerful, and indeed entertaining, was it. At times I forgot the orchestra was even there, as it really was like watching the series at home, albeit on a grander scale. That’s when it clicked, this is what it was all about – we were witnessing the magic of film music before our very eyes. The music became the storyteller, narrating these glorious pictures and imbuing them with emotional chemistry; in that sense it was at times very moving, particularly the section devoted to the ‘Grey Whale’ in the first half. We were given the background to the footage we were about to see, of a Grey Whale trying in vain to save her calf from being killed by a pack of Orca, as they swam a treacherous short cut off the coast of California. As the drama unfolded on screen, so too did George’s impressive music; heavy brass heralded the appearance of the Killer Whales, the musicians managing to hit every slice of fin through water, every thunderous splash as the baby was slowly drowned. The drama on screen was palpable, but it was the music which brought out the ‘story’; it was hard not to gulp back tears as the Mother fought helplessly to save her baby and ultimately lose it, facing the long journey north alone.
Though a highlight of it certainly, the first half proffered other beautiful moments. Opening with the audacious sight of the Blue Whale, accompanied by its noble theme, we were then treated to the sun-kissed sonorities of ‘Dolphins’, which accompanied the extraordinary footage of the ‘spinning’ Dolphins, which launch themselves from the water and cavort as though simply happy to be alive. The orchestra were joined by Spanish guitar and Charanga, while the lovely melody was played out on flute – a favourite moment to be sure. A further highlight was ‘Sardine Run’, which has always been a favourite cue of mine; it has such energy and excitement and, again, told a story as tens of thousands of migrating Sardine became the prey of birds, dolphins and eventually a great whale, each of which was highlighted by moments in the music.
To close the first half, Fenton arranged a medley of traditional festive music for ‘The Frozen Oceans’; it was an entertaining montage of the pole’s inhabitants and the music accented snow-frolicking wolves, bears and birds. The sight of returning female Emperor Penguins, scored with ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’, worked wonderfully.
In the second half, we were taken to ‘The Coast’ as Fenton’s muscular (well, perhaps blubbery) ‘Elephant Seal March’ accompanied shots of the ungainly mammals preying on sea birds. This half was very much about eating it seemed, as ‘Feeding Frenzy’ soon followed, another highlight showcasing the stunning ‘Baitball’ sequence, while ‘Killer Whales’ showed the mighty mammals living up to their name. The sight of the Killer Whale thundering into the shallows and beaching itself, like a freight train, to catch seal pups still shocks and inspires awe in me, and with the live music it was truly hair raising.
‘The Shallow Seas’ offered a change in mood, as we were introduced to some of marine life’s smaller creatures. Thimble Jellyfish and a variety of crustaceans were scored, as in the series, with lighter, cooler refrains. The orchestra members, largely in the percussion section, played along to a prepared synthetic track, and were joined on stage by trumpeter Mike Lovett, who increased the laid-back mood with sultry solo brass.
All this aside, there was a deeper message at the heart of ‘The Blue Planet Live!’ and one moment in particular made subtle, but impacting reference to it. Once again Fenton turned to someone else’s music for the closing segment, this time a favourite songwriter of his, Charles Trenet. A recording of Trenet’s ‘La Mer’ (which would be known to many later as ‘Beyond The Sea’) was piped into the hall, along with which members of the orchestra began playing. As the musicians and singers took over, images of ocean creatures began to appear on screen, with subtitles that would make us think, pointing out the decreasing numbers of Blue Whale for example, the amount of Sharks killed each year for their fins and the depleting fish stocks which will collapse if we continue to fish at the current rate. It was certainly ironic to see these sad facts and uncomfortable figures alongside such a carefree, merry tune and that was of course its impact.
This is a special show, not just for the subtle waves it makes about marine conservation, but for the overall concept, which is one that should attract and affect many. ‘The Blue Planet Live!’ is at once exciting, entertaining and downright inspiring and if you have the chance to go, then I urge you to experience the power of The Blue Planet and George Fenton’s glorious music first hand.
Originally published at Music from the Movies.com, April 2008.