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Film Reviews

Björk-in' The Land: Biophilia Live Reviewed
Laura Snoad , November 28th, 2014 07:52

Did the Icelandic maverick's conceptual concept film leave Laura Snoad 'Violently Happy', or will she give it a 'Frosti' reception?

By its very nature, the concert film is a tough nut to crack. However atmospheric or artfully shot, it’s rare that you sit through one without wishing you were at the gig in question rather than watching it in pokey dimensions with the tyranny of the camera controlling your view. In creating Björk: Biophilia Live, director Peter Strickland and editor Nick Fenton had to deal not only with these in-built genre frustrations, but also with how to convey a complicated and multi-faceted project that centred around an entirely new approach to song-writing inspired by natural patterns and phenomena, and involved never-before-seen unclassifiable instruments, a suite of ten apps that aimed to challenge the idea of music as a one-way broadcast (not to mention the first app to enter MoMA), and an educational programme that stretched far beyond the confines of a concert hall.

For those unfamiliar with the context of Biophilia, it was an album born partly out of Björk’s growing interest in the touchscreen as a method of writing, playing and interacting with music (kindled while touring Volta), and also a drive to investigate how sound works in nature and how organic patterns (atomic, cellular and cosmic) can influence song structure. Easily her most conceptual record to date, the project saw her collaborate with scientists, inventors and developers, before proceeding on a three-year world tour that started at the Manchester International Festival - which initially commissioned the live project - and ending at London’s Alexandra Palace, where Björk: Biophilia Live was filmed.

Unsurprisingly considering the project’s scope, Strickland, Fenton and producer Jacqui Edenbrow decided to take a more creative approach to the concert film than offering a straight visual documentation of the gig. Its opening sequence is indicative of what follows: awe-inspiring archive footage from the BBC, NASA, the Wellcome Trust and beyond is expertly spliced together, before a clip of squirming blue and green microorganisms fades into the reflective glimmer of the sequinned dresses worn by Björk’s all-female 24-strong Icelandic choir. Throughout the film a lot of thought has been put into pairings between images of the natural world and sections of the gig, either to create mood, on account of lyrical or sonic content or, like here, visual correlations between the two worlds.

The unmistakeable voice of David Attenborough is dubbed over this initial section, introducing the project in bombastic terms and claiming, “In Biophilia you will experience how the three [things] come together: nature, music and technology. Listen, learn and create”. Here is perhaps the first jarring point of the film. Attenborough’s authoritative tone, the muscle memory it triggers, and the suggestion that you will “learn” sets up the expectation that the audience will witness an in-depth exploration of the Biophilia concept. A documentary about the project does already exist (When Björk Met Attenborough), and one suspects that this introductory speech may have been recorded for that film, as it feels somewhat at odds with what follows: an imaginative, rather than informative, visual collage.

But that’s not to say the film isn’t intelligent. The editing of the footage captured by the 16+ team of camera operators and crew feels very intuitive and transitions between shots are so comfortable that they go largely unnoticed. The viewer is never left wondering what a unusual sound or unfamiliar instrument is – a good job considering the live show contains a Sharpsichord (Google it now), a MIDI-controlled pipe organ, twin musical Tesla coils that fizz with bolts of electricity, and a specially commissioned, 30ft-tall arrangement of 38 pendulums that uses the planet’s gravitational pull to pluck strings like a self-playing harp. Drifting in and out of focus, Björk swirls around the frame surrounded by a hazy aura of colour– the light spots and lens flare are a good match for the performers’ vibrant costumes.

The integration between graphics and photography is also neatly done. During the track ‘Crystalline’, elements from Jean Painlevé’s 1978 film Cristaux Liquides grow from the sides of the screen in time with the music, itself written in an unusual 17/18 time signature to mimic certain types of crystal formation. Starfish pulsate to the beat, mushrooms swell and retreat in sync with the audience's applause and a squid is rhythmically devoured by a swarm of little orange fish. The darkness between tracks provides a fruitful void for overlaying natural imagery, such as plankton catching the light of a deep sea diver’s head torch or a lava flow running into an indigo sea. During ‘Forbidden Place’ the black space above Björk and the choir is replaced with footage taken underneath a frozen lake, providing a solid ceiling that oscillates between comforting and claustrophobic. Graphics from the app and sketchy spiderweb-like illustrations weave around the choir in ‘Cosmology’ like expressively drawn formulas or constellations, nodding to the complex patterns that underpin the record’s compositional structure.

But there are times when Strickland gets it wrong. The overlapping multiple Björks resemble 1970s editions of Top of the Pops in the early days of VFX, and some awkward audience shots (namely a woman telling her boyfriend to pipe down and one rather traumatised-looking fan) somewhat ruin the magic. Sometimes the archive footage is cut just as it is building momentum and the film’s abrupt ending rather knocks the wind out of the performance, which feels like a an odd move when Björk comes back in the final credits to encore with ‘Sacrifice’ alongside the Sharpsichord.

Counterintuitively, Björk: Biophilia Live is at its best when it’s totally psychedelic and Strickland’s creativity is not reigned in by the physicality of the live footage – a problem of the genre as a whole perhaps. Indeed Fenton and Strickland’s own comments taken from the directors’ statement sum up the format’s perimeters: “Our contribution to Biophilia was to colour in what is essentially a concert film with the imagery evoked by Björk’s lyrics, harmonies and textures,” they write. “To colour in”, or fill the gaps, is an accurate description of what the pair have done, but the result is that the film sometimes feels unsure as to whether it is documenting creativity or whether it itself is the creative work. It’s an important historical record of an ephemeral event and a key element of a much larger whole, but the magic of the film is in the Biophilia project rather than in its power as a standalone piece of film-making.

Björk: Biophilia Live is out on DVD now via One Little Indian

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