Tuesday, 7 October 2014
At the LFF: "Björk: Biophilia Live"
Peter Strickland's second film in this year's LFF, Björk: Biophilia Live, is a more salubrious proposition than The Duke of Burgundy, thankfully: a record of the final night of the singer's 2013 Alexandra Palace gigs on the subject of all things natural. That's a concept it would, in the wrong venue, be easy to stamp all over, like a roadie pushing an amp over a daisy, and these were, clearly, logistically challenging concerts to stage: performed in the round, complete with simultaneous multimedia aspect (video projections of DNA helixes and dashing red blood cells, a Dave Attenborough introduction), dancing choristers running on the purest Icelandic blood, and instruments constructed to replicate the rhythms and sounds of certain natural phenomena. Who knows how The Script's live performances could be improved with the addition of a touchscreen-operated Van der Graaf generator or self-playing organ?
Credit, then, to Strickland, proven student of the immersive properties of sound, who absolutely gets us in the room, and the mood, and the moment; furthermore, that he manages to curate, with co-director and editor Nick Fenton, a safe, soothing, womb-like space within which even the singer's wilder ideas can take seed and start to flower. Biophilia is about as intimate as concert movies get: less a corporate-run stadium event than an audience with Björk, surely now established as the closest the pop world has to a Marina Abramović figure. Her visual sense is evident the minute she takes to the stage, clad (conservatively, for Little Miss Swan-Dress) in a squid-like outfit that looks as though Mr. Björk, Matthew Barney, had rescued a discarded Pirates of the Caribbean make-up test and oiled it with more of his beloved Vaseline; atop the singer's head, there sits a polychromatic fright wig that may remind botanists of coral blooms and others of the Northern cabaret performer Charlie Chuck.
Of course, none of this matters - or, perhaps, all of this makes sense - once Björk opens her mouth, and we hear that sound: the uncanny sound of English being spoken and phrased with a foreign tongue, so distinctive as to be all but inimitable. Who else could so precisely rhyme "hearts" with "quartz"? (Perhaps the closest anyone's come to the strangeness of that sound: Jan Molby, in his post-match interviews for Liverpool.) Much of Björk's music now foregrounds that voice, the beats that were an integral part of her chart career having been pared back or stripped away entirely. Half the gig therefore comes in at the level of a candlelit vigil for a missing sailor; even at its most energised, with choristers and visuals going at full pelt and the singer in full ululation, it's like watching an early 90s rave in super-slow motion.
Either way, there is a lot of love in the room, as there was during Kate Bush's recent Hammersmith Apollo run. (It's that heightened affection inspired by a rare female performer who's survived the machinations of the music industry to forge her own path; whose every gentle statement is a roaring "fuck you" to the business.) Strickland's camera slowly circumnavigates the room, apparently hypnotised by these events; beyond the stage, we catch glimpses of the crowd, like ourselves, awed into a hushed reverence, hanging on every eruptively uttered word. The direction, however, snaps to and steps back whenever Bob the Spark pushes the button on the projector: at key points, the screen floods with views from the polar ice shelf, or migrating starfish, or timelapse footage of bodies decaying much as Peter Greenaway deployed in A Zed and Two Noughts - though it's a sign of Strickland's sensibility (and sensitivity) that he's happy to let this latter play out in silence, as a spectacle in itself.
Nothing if not organic, Biophilia is full of these strange, wondrous flourishes, of unexpected pauses for thought and noises you'd call otherworldly if they hadn't so obviously been sourced from this planet of ours; at points - most notably during closing electro-stomp "Declare Independence", here dedicated to Greenland and the Faroe Islands, and sounding like the closest The Fall ever got to recording a call-and-response record - it seems as though we're no longer watching a concert film but stumbling upon some conceptual art happening, as the backing singers appear to huddle in cell formation or mimic the movements of a volatile volcano. Time and again, however, the camera is drawn to this project's nucleus, the tiny little pixie woman with the big voice and the utterly singular way of expressing herself: a force of nature, caught in the midst of a fascinating act of creation.
Bjork: Biophilia Live screens on Thu 9 at 6pm in Odeon Covent Garden 2, and on Fri 10 at 9pm at the Curzon Soho, before opening in selected cinemas from October 17.