Ken Russell’s view of The Planets
Music by Gustav Holst
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
Illustrated with documentary material chosen by Ken Russell
Edited and presented by Melvyn Bragg
rec. Monarda Arts/London Weekend Television (LWT), South Bank Show, 1983
Picture Format: 4:3; Region: free; high definition Blu-ray DVD 25GB; PCM Stereo
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 109169 [50:00]

Readers expecting to see something here of Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra will be disappointed. For that matter, why was this particular work selected although it does tend to overwhelm all the other excellent music the composer wrote. Then again, why was this performance of Holst’s masterpiece chosen as opposed to one by a British orchestra. There was Boult’s admired late recording for instance, especially knowing Russell’s predilection for British music.

The visuals completely comprise images chosen by Ken Russell to illustrate associations with Gustav Holst’s The Planets written, it should be remembered, before the discovery of the planet Pluto. Sometimes he observes, after a fashion, the astrological associations with the seven planets as the composer is said to have done. Followers of Ken Russell’s opuses from the dedicated and much admired films on Elgar, Delius and Debussy through to his later, more madcap creations, will know what to expect. Here are images that sometimes are inspired associations harmonising well with the flow and rhythms of the music and, at others, jarringly disconcerting. Readers will either love it or hate it or simply be bemused.

Unsurprisingly, Mars concentrates for much of the movement on images of Fascist Germany on the rise, Hitler to the fore, Hitler youth strident and brain-washed, grand marches and swastikas prominently displayed. Russell follows up with briefer glimpses of Russian war-mongering with its huge nuclear war-head-mounted rockets trundling across Moscow’s Red Square. There are similar threatening glimpses of American and British fist-shaking. Unsurprisingly, this movement’s pictures end up with an apocalyptic vision of nuclear explosions and volcanic eruptions. For Venus, it is a celebration of the female form and vanity. Mercury is an exhilarating look at speed and sports – surfers, hang-gliders, sailing-ship racing, and the Red Arrows. Jupiter’s outer music has comic capers, Mardi Gras celebrations, Chinese dragons in parades. As for the ‘I vow to thee my country’ middle section we are treated to footage of climbers surmounting ice fields and impossible-seeming crags and cliffs to reach a mountain summit symbolising, I suppose, man’s unquenchable aspirations. Saturn, the bringer of Old Age, concentrates on waste: traffic congestion, huge, ever-growing mountains of scrapped, old and abandoned cars. Then production lines of new cars, now robot-built (superseding human workers) all manufactured in factories belching out huge amounts of smoke and pollutants; you get the picture. Uranus, the Magician, begins with clips from Nosferatu, Murnau’s 1922 German vampire horror film and continues with book-burnings, martial arts, huge grimy men wrestling and indoctrinations including pictures of the Pope which clearly will offend many. The less said about this section the better. Finally, Neptune the Mystic begins with Australian Aborigines’ rites, then the new age hippies and the rubbish they leave behind their celebrations. The female form and beauty is celebrated, nay worshipped, with heavily significant images of egg-shaped rocks and a woman alone looking towards the rising sun, at midsummer solstice, over Stonehenge.

Puzzlingly, as the movement and the work ends with that unaccompanied women’s chorus fading to naught, Russell’s images are of a female deep-sea diver swimming with a shoal of fish and a team of sky-divers linking hands in a pattern as they free-fall.

You will either love or hate this eccentric vision of The Planets or simply be bemused. I doubt that it will pay many or any return visits to DVD players.

Ian Lace



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