Bjork's 'Biophilia Live' is lost in innovation

Concert film is both dazzling and confusing

Friday November 7, 2014 04:00 am EST

At the opening of the new concert film Björk: Biophilia Live, the voice of famed naturalist Richard Attenborough invites us to forget the size of the human body. It's a strange, deliciously aspirational invitation that viewers may aspire to accept, but most will probably feel about the same size as they did when they went in the theater. Though the concert film itself is lovely and the singer Björk is in very fine voice backed by outstanding musicians, the film's insistence on its own innovativeness (Attenborough's speech seems almost to imply that the movie lies at the forefront of the next stage of evolution between nature and technology) can be a somewhat puzzling framework for delivering performance.

Filmmakers Nick Fenton and Peter Strickland mostly give us a straightforward hour-and-a-half document of Björk's concert at London's Alexandra Palace in 2013. There are some outfits only Björk could wear, and so it is in the film: she appears throughout in a whimsically lumpy, reptilian dress with knobby, breastlike protrusions from top to bottom wearing a frizzy cloud-like red wig streaked with deep blue.

Though her band is small for the concert, Björk's musicians utilize many different instruments, many of them original and curiously idiosyncratic, and one of the strongest elements of the concert film is actually the use of an all-female Icelandic chorus: one of the concert's least showy and least self-consciously innovative elements, their presence gives the songs their most interesting textures. Most of the songs are from the Biophilia album but longtime fans will enjoy dreamy versions of classics like "Possibly Maybe" and "Isobel," which lose some of their throwaway '90s dance-music pop-ness, but gain a lovely, art-song spaciousness. The singer's voice seems mostly unaltered throughout the film, a wise choice: all the weird bumps and edges of her voice come through with crystalline clarity, though the final encore song, the anthemic "Declare Independence," is given a rough, punk edge through distorting the vocals.

The film includes visuals from the Biophilia app and dazzling abstract images from the natural world such as vivid video of microscopic life, glistening petal-like fungi or phases of the moon, but it's often frustratingly difficult to distinguish what is actually being projected at the performance and what is being added post-production. It's also difficult to tell which are actual images from the natural world and which of the them might be computer-generated, an unusual sort of problem for a concert film.

For some listeners, Björk's lyrics often cross the line from singular and incisive to irksome nonsense. The line "Like a mushroom on a tree as the protein transmutates/I knock on your skin," which did it for me, could serve as a test case for others. Biophilia should thrill the singer's fans, though if you don't already consider her a creature of mystery and delight, the film is unlikely to be the object that prompts your conversion.

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