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KARLOVY VARY — Rock concert films are often prosaic cash-in affairs, but the live show that accompanied Icelandic art-pop icon Björk‘s 2011 album Biophilia was a dazzling audiovisual spectacle that benefits from the full cinematic treatment. A mix of avant-garde opera, high-tech science lesson and large-scale performance art piece, this ambitious production was staged in the round with an arsenal of exotic musical machines and a 24-piece all-women choir, Gradule Nobili, who danced and harmonized alongside the volcano-voiced diva.
Making its European debut at Karlovy Vary film festival this week, Biophilia Live is a faithful record of the show but also an imaginative stand-alone artwork. The left-field British duo behind the camera are Peter Strickland, best known for his stylish 2012 retro-horror thriller Berberian Sound Studio, and Nick Fenton, an award-winning editor turned first-time director. Considering Björk’s solid global fanbase, and the ecstatic reviews that greeted these concerts, interest should be keen around the film’s theatrical release in the fall, with brisk home-entertainment business to follow.
Biophilia Live was filmed last September in London at the penultimate date of a two-year tour, with additional visuals and animations added in post-production. For the performance, Björk models an explosive orange-tinted wig, a face-framing band of vivid blue and a flesh-colored biomorphic dress by the chic Dutch designer Iris Van Herpen which looks like it slithered out of a David Cronenberg body-horror movie. Memo to Lady Gaga: Cutting-edge glam-pop spectacle can have substance as well as style.
Björk was involved with every aspect of this multimedia project, and her name appears at least a dozen times in the credits. But Biophilia Live is a broad coalition of diverse talents, onstage and off. The veteran BBC television presenter David Attenborough provides the pre-recorded opening narration, laying out the show’s interwoven themes of nature, technology and creativity. Musical director Matt Robertson and multi-instrumentalist Manu Delago play most of the music, but it is the all-female army of singers who hog the limelight.
The artist and sculptor Henry Dagg also makes a cameo with his hand-cranked “sharpsichord”, a glorious steampunk contraption which generates tinkling melodies via a pianola-style rolling drum. This show also features four “gravity harps” mounted on long wooden pendulums, a 100-year-old Celeste keyboard specially adapted to mimic the trance-like ripples of Indonesian gamelan music and a huge electromagnetic Tesla coil which spits man-made lightning forks like something from Doctor Frankenstein’s laboratory. Antique craftsmanship meets carnival showmanship.
Strickland and Fenton bring an extra layer of visual invention, smartly expanding on the show’s pre-existing video elements and adding their own bespoke cinematic touches. Heavenly constellations billow across dark sections of screen above the stage, sometimes engulfing Björk like she is some kind of gargantuan space goddess. Dancing starfish, tumescent mushrooms, whirling DNA spirals, molten lava lakes and psychedelic crystal formations all invade the screen at various points.
Heavily biased towards Biophilia tracks, with just a handful of rebooted classics from Björk’s 20-year back catalogue, Biophilia Live is not a greatest hits show. Casual fans may find some of it too forbiddingly arty, particularly abrasive interludes like the ferocious burst of drum’n’bass at the end of “Crystalline.” But there are some gorgeous emotional depths here too, especially when the swooping harmonies of Gradule Nobili are given full rein. The ear-bashing call to arms “Declare Independence” is also a great finale, proving that behind all the alien glamor and sci-fi technology, Björk remains a punk rocker at heart.
Production companies: Gloria Films in association with One Little Indian and the Wellcome Trust
Directors: Peter Strickland, Nick Fenton
Producer: Jacqui Edenbrow
Executive producers: Derek Birkett, Emma Birkett, Meroe Candy
Cinematographer: Brett Turnbull
Editor: Nick Fenton
Sales company: Cinema Purgatorio
No rating, 97 minutes
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