For better or worse, we do approach any new project from impish Icelandic enchantress Björk with an expectation of weird. And it’s an expectation that her Biophilia album and concert tour, of which this film is a record, clearly delivered on. Prologued by a David Attenborough voiceover, it’s really an exhilarating, sometimes mystifying extended riff on one major theme: we are on the brink of a revolution that exists at the creative nexus of nature, music and technology. So far, so very, very Björk (and lest we be mistaken, let us say that is in no way a bad thing). Yet as we discovered at the film’s European Premiere at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, directors Nick Fenton and Peter Strickland, the latter of whom also made underseen Giallo homage “Berberian Sound Studio” and will return to narrative filmmaking later this year with the intriguing-sounding “The Duke of Burgundy,” seem content to interpret the title ‘Biophilia Live’ literally and to mostly present the concert in as unmediated a way as possible. And so, cutting fluidly and comprehensibly between camera angles, with the greatest of respect for the musicians and musicality, we are very aware of the choreography and theatricality of this impressively mounted show, but only a few times do they really attempt to translate that experience into purely filmic language. Being Björk fans, we both understood and were a little let down by this reverence.
However the movie does, of course, sound amazing, and there are times when seeing the musicians and instruments (particularly the hang drum as played by percussionist Manu Delago and the “Sharpsichord” in the encore, whose inner workings are intricately fascinating) does really heighten one’s appreciation of the rigorous yet vehemently unconventional compositions. And even though Biophilia is not our favorite of Björk’s albums, certainly the staging, from its giant wooden pendulums to its female Icelandic choir dressed in asymmetric hooded tunics of blue and gold sequinned crushed velvet, to the screens showing macro, time-lapse images of the natural world, all meteorites and microbes and mushrooms, worked to bring us to a new appreciation of its twitchy curiosity and sense of wonder.
While the concert is largely dedicated to the songs from the Biophilia album, starting off with “Thunderbolt” and really kicking into gear with a terrific, strobe-y rendition of “Crystalline,” there are a few old favorites sprinkled throughout. Without much interaction with the audience until the very end, bar an occasional “Thank you!” and a dedication of “Mutual Core” to wacky volcano Eyjafjallajökull, the old familiars like “Possibly Maybe,” “Isobel,” and “Hidden Place” certainly feel like welcome moments, especially refreshed and re-rendered in the Biophilia orchestration. But she saves her barnstomper for last, dedicating a practically rabble-rousing rendition of her unsubtly political “Declare Independence” from Volta to “Greenland and the Faroe Islands.” It’s a fun, sing along, audience participation note to go out on but it does sit a little at odds with the ethereal, unearthly vibe that so much of the rest of the concert has played in.
Björk herself, dressed in a plasticky sculptural outfit and wearing a huge fuzzy wig in the exact colors of a Hubble Space Telescope photograph of a nebula, is perfection—her voice, that inimitable combination of childlike and powerful, seems as flawlessly idiosyncratic as ever. Still, we could wish that, especially with a performer as notable for her experimental, boundary-pushing music videos and promos (to say nothing of her own startling moment as an actress in “Dancer in the Dark”) there were more than the few filmic flourishes we get—the occasional starfish hovers onscreen beside the singer, and a dead squid is stripped down to nothing by teeming mites in time-lapse, but mostly we are watching the show, and of course it can never be quite like being there.
A lot of these niggles are about the potential value of the whole concert movie genre itself. And how much you like this one will depend on your level of fandom for Björk but also on what you judge to be the major function of the concert film—to be a film? To be a live album accompanied by moving pictures? Or to give you the impression that you were present at the gig in question? “Björk: Biophilia Live” is a little uninspired as the first, works like gangbusters as the second, and is mildly successful as the third which ultimately adds up to a slight letdown, albeit one that sounds amazing, from the high hopes we had for such an experimental and individual artist. Only rarely allowing their own directorial tendencies to make themselves felt (which again is very probably through respect for Björk as the real “author” of this film), Strickland and Fenton’s “Biophilia Live” is a largely straightforward presentation of a performance and a performer that is anything but. [B-]