Review: Björk Biophilia Live film

Biophilia, Björk’s seventh album, came to us in many forms: as an album, app, concert, documentary, and a deluxe boxset with tuning forks. Now, to complete the package, the singer has released a concert film, which will receive its UK premiere at the London Film Festival on Thursday…

Biophilia, Björk’s seventh album, came to us in many forms: as an album, app, concert, documentary, and a deluxe boxset with tuning forks. Now, to complete the package, the singer has released a concert film, which will receive its UK premiere at the London Film Festival on Thursday…

Biophilia was a special project in numerous ways. An exploration into the ways that music, nature and technology intersect, it mixed Björk’s music with experiments with art and science. The app alone, released in 2011, offered a vision for how artists could explore the new opportunities offered by tablets to create significant artworks to accompany music (and potentially sell some albums in the process). Even if you aren’t a fan of the singer, there was much to love there, with each song accompanied by an interactive game or animation: it became the first app to be bought by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which will also be hosting a major retrospective of Björk’s work in 2015.

The ideas within Biophilia were given some heft by the involvement of David Attenborough, who did a voiceover for the app, and also introduces this new film. Attenborough and Björk are also shown in conversation in a documentary, titled When Björk Met Attenborough, which shows Björk in preparation for the concert tour, and also features contributions from star neurologist Oliver Sacks. And if all that wasn’t enough, Björk created a interactive education programme for school kids using Biophilia and also designed a series of quirky and wonderful musical instruments for her live performances.

So how does the new movie fit into the wider project? Directed by Peter Strickland and Nick Fenton, it is broadly a traditional concert film, with some added imagery reflecting the album’s themes and ideas superimposed around the musicians as they perform the final leg of the tour at London’s Alexandra Palace in September 2013. There are also animated sequences inserted between songs in the film. Some of these visuals are taken from the app, others from nature archives. At times the latter images verge on the predictable, with footage of galaxies and DNA structures making an appearance, though it’s also fun to see giant squid appear on stage beside Björk.

Björk herself is charming company throughout, dressed in a suitably organic-looking dress, topped with a giant multi-coloured afro wig. She is backed by a 14 strong, all-female Icelandic choir who are dressed like they belong in a hippy cult. The singer mixes songs from the album with reworked versions of classics such as Isobel, One Day, and Hidden Place, and the camera takes us around the stage, offering tantalising glimpses of those bizarre but beautiful instruments.

While Björk, the band and the audience all look like they are having a great time though, it is impossible not to feel at something of a remove watching it all on film: at times I was left longing to feel the vibrations of a decent bass rumble (particularly in the encore, Declare Independence, which seemed especially rousing), but the cinema sound effects are inevitably muted in comparison to the real thing.

Unlike the app, and Björk’s beautiful videos, which appeal to audiences as much for their creativity as their music, Biophilia Live an experience that is one for the pure fans: it is an enjoyable concert film, and a good summation of the live element of this project, but the really experimental stuff is happening elsewhere.

Biophilia Live will premiere as part of the London Film Festival’s Sonic Gala on October 9, with Björk and directors Peter Stickland and Nick Fenton in attendance. More info is here. The film is released at cinemas on October 17 and on DVD/Blu-Ray on November 3.

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