Outlandish Icelandic performance artist Björk has long been a polarizing figure. When we think of the now-50-year-old musician, there are two things that cannot be denied. For one, the singer’s warbling high-pitched wails never fail to enchant. And two, she seems as youthful now as she did with the Sugarcubes nearly three decades ago.
Current generations may not remember the Cubes or even Björk’s foray into acting in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, for which she won best actress at Cannes in 2000. Perhaps more notable is the notorious swan dress she wore to the Oscars in 2001. That dress, a bellwether of the singer’s fashion sensibility, is a benign infraction compared to the strange frock she dons in her new concert film, Björk: Biophilia Live. It looks like melted and oozing human breasts fused together. Think of the raw garishness of Lady Gaga’s meat dress, and you’d be close to imagining Björk’s latest foray into fashion freakiness. In the concert flick, she also sports a dramatic orange wig, reminiscent of Erykah Badu’s ‘do in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. Björk is a baroque caricature, but her appearance is no longer a distraction once a song begins.
Björk: Biophilia Live takes its name from Björk’s 2011 concept album. Biophilia is Björk’s eighth solo venture since her self-titled debut in 1977, when she was just a teen. To make the album very Björk, the record also comes as a pretty far-out app. Actually, each song is an app. Designed to be an educational, multimedia experience, Björk paired app developers with scientists, writers, musicians, inventors, and instrument makers to explore the universe and its physical forces. The goal is to bring together nature, music, and technology, and the film is an extension of that concept.
The concert was originally intended to be a 3-D film directed by longtime collaborator Michael Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), who helmed the singer’s MTV staple “Human Behaviour.” But for reasons unknown, the collaboration didn’t come to fruition, and so Nick Fenton (editor on Submarine) and Peter Strickland (director of Berberian Sound Studio) took the reins.
The film is an immersion into the worlds of art, science, and nature. And in case you missed the title’s importance, the film features a gentlemanly prologue by Planet Earth‘s David Attenborough explaining the use of celestial entities, sea urchins, and human blood vessels featured throughout. Björk and Attenborough recently did a British TV documentary about the relationship between humans and music.
Shot at Alexandra Palace in London last year, the variety of instruments featured in the film is so broad that some are unclassifiable. Backed by an all-girl chorus, Björk rips through most of the tracks from Biophilia with gusto, as if she were the Pied Piper leading his ceremonious crowd to the precipice of someplace greater. Driven by synthetic drums and rhythmic bells, “Crystalline” invigorates, while others like “Cosmology” are slower, more contemplative works that beguile through the inspired spectacle on stage.
Throughout her career, Björk has always been a do-it-her-way conceptualist. But what’s made her stand the test of time is her fascinating, otherworldly presence paired with a powerful, wailing voice that can’t be ignored. Biophilia Live is a heartfelt sojourn for fans of the Icelandic chanteuse and a sure hook to enlist new generations willing to be educated.