Our current Movie of the Month, the 1986 concert film Home of the Brave, is only a small glimpse into the profoundly peculiar mind of performance artist & avant-garde musician Laurie Anderson. Home of the Brave is a streamlined, 90min distillation of Anderson’s United States I-IV stage show: a four-part, two-night concert series in the early 1980s that combined lectures, digital projections, absurdist dance, and bizarre new wave compositions to abstract & deconstruct the nature of modern living in the Western world (and America in particular, as the title suggests). It’s a sprawling “Who are we?” existential crisis for The Reagan Era, abstracting basic modern concepts as varied as America’s national identity, the nature of rock music, the absurdism of gender performance & 80s workout routines, basic human interactions, technology, language, etc. Even as only a small portion of that magnum opus, Home of the Brave clearly registers to my eyes & ears as one of the greatest concert films of all time, a wonderful introduction to Anderson’s consistently exciting & confounding genius.
While there is only one wonderful mind like Laurie Anderson’s, she’s not the only philosophically minded musician who’s used filmmaking to document & bolster her art. Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to see more pop music cinema on its profoundly peculiar wavelength.
American Utopia (2020)
Full disclosure: the only reason I recently sought out Home of the Brave in the first place is because last year’s David Byrne concert film American Utopia reminded me so much of Anderson’s work in United States I-IV. In American Utopia, Byrne’s parade of solo & Talking Heads hits are bookended by short lectures that examine the function & the soul of American culture from an abstracted outsider perspective – a kind of spiritual sequel to his Small-Town America portrait True Stories. American Utopia is an honest but optimistic temperature check of where America is today, both acknowledging the horrors of racially motivated police brutality that have long been a stain on this country’s honor and pointing to our current moment of change as a possibly transformative turning point towards a better future. Meanwhile, everything onstage is rigidly uniformed & regimented like a dystopian sci-fi film, with the traditional rock performers’ instruments & colorful costuming stripped away to mimic the minimalism of modern performance art. Like Home of the Brave, it’s the kind of existential national identity crisis that you can dance to.
To be honest, I do have a small chip on my shoulder about how much praise is heaped on Byrne’s American Utopia & Stop Making Sense films while Home of the Brave never even made the jump from VHS & Laserdisc to DVD, much less Blu-ray. Although she’s less of a household name elsewhere, Laurie Anderson was very much an equal & contemporary alongside David Byrne in NYC art snob circles in the early 1980s. Stop Making Sense might have preceded the concert film version of her United States act by a few years, but she was already pushing its more out-there ideas to their furthest extreme in her own stage work at that same time. If anything, American Utopia finds Byrne leaning further into the Laurie Andrersonisms of his own work, to the point where it feels like it’s turning Home of the Brave‘s idiosyncrasies into a concert film subgenre all of its own. Both films are great, but only one is being left to rot in the wasteland of fuzzy YouTube uploads.
Björk: Biophilia Live (2014)
While David Byrne collaborated with the distinctly American auteur Spike Lee on his own pop-lecture concert film, Björk outsourced the filmmaking duties on her 2014 concert piece Biophilia Live to two eccentric Brits. Unrepentant fetishist (and one of my favorite living filmmakers) Peter Strickland handled the direction of the film, while famed naturalist David Attenborough contributed the lecture portions of the performance (and expanded on its ideas in a bonus feature titled When Björk Met Attenborough). Biophilia Live beings with Attenborough making wild, unrealistic declarations over breathtaking nature footage, urging the audience to “Forget the size of the human body. Remember that you are a gateway between the universal and the microscopic, the unseen forces that stir the depths of your innermost being and Nature, who embraces you and all there is.” He goes on to claim that “We are on the brink of a revolution that will reunite humans with nature through new technological innovation.” That abstract, philosophical subject is a Laurie Anderson-scale ambition for a mere concert film. Björk nearly delivers on that majestic promise too, finding a unique visual language that combines “nature, music, and technology” into one cohesive whole.
This union of “nature, music and technology” is accomplished through a layered visual collage that matches the on-stage aspects of the concert being filmed to the beautiful nature footage & pixelated CGI that swirls around and above it. During the opening song “Thunderbolt” Björk appears in the Earth’s stormy atmosphere, her backing band’s synths (and a specially rigged Tesla coil) seemingly controlling the lightning that illuminates the air around her. The imagery then shifts from the earthly to the celestial, the rhythm of the music correlating to the phases of the moon and the glacially shifting lights of stars and galaxies. The focus then shrinks from the heavenly to the microscopic; Fantastic Voyage-style close-ups of blood moving through veins fade to pixelated bacteria attaching to strands of DNA before the images finally devolve into distorted television color bars & computer monitor static. These phases of the imagery are cleverly allowed to bleed into one another instead of remaining isolated, which leads to some transcendent juxtaposition: a lightning storm in outer space, the moon perched on a spinal column, crystal formations melting into prism light. Even Björk herself looks like a combination of two ostensibly separate natural phenomena: her gigantic wig like a colorful galaxy & her asymmetrical dress like an underwater growth.
Attenborough’s opening monologue defines “biophilia” as “the love for Nature in all her manifestations” and Biophilia Live tries desperately to capture all those manifestations in one definitive catalog. Conceived as a single facet of a multi-media project alongside a studio album, music-composition computer apps, and the aforementioned conversation between Björk & Attenborough, the film itself is more than just a document of a single concert. It’s also an attempt to tie years of far-reaching ideas spread across various art forms into a single product, the same way it tries to tie all of Nature into a single entity. It’s the only concert project I can think of that matches the hyperbolic ambition of United States I-IV, and it’s not at all surprising that effort came from an artist as daring & eccentric as Björk.
Heart of a Dog (2015)
While I greatly respect both the American Utopia & Biophilia concert films on their own terms, neither can truly scratch the itch of wanting more art on Home of the Brave‘s peculiar wavelength. Laurie Anderson is just too distinctive of a philosophical mind to find that need satisfied in another artist’s hands. That’s why I’d also recommend pairing Home of the Brave with her essay film Heart of a Dog (her only subsequent feature-length work as a director) even though it’s not a concert film. While Home of the Brave is a snapshot of Anderson going as broadly, abstractly philosophical as possible, Heart of a Dog finds her at her most intimate. Presented as a meditation on the nature of Death following the loss of Anderson’s beloved rat terrier Lola, the film mostly functions as an act of self-therapy after the also-recent death of her husband, Lou Reed. In the film, Anderson mixes stock footage, digital photography, home movies, and animation to bring her trademark spoken-word work to vivid, visual life. Anderson’s intense soundscapes & language play hadn’t changed much in the decades since Home of the Brave, but they’re presented here with the immediacy & intimacy of listening to her narrate a private family photo album instead of a sprawling stage show.
Of course, Anderson can’t help but process her familial grief through prodding at larger, more abstract concepts; that’s just who she is. The losses of Lola & Lou inform every frame of Heart of a Dog, but they’re part of a larger tapestry of ideas that cover everything from the modern surveillance state to living in New York during 9/11 to the tenants of Buddhism to the existence of ghosts. Lou Reed’s absence weighs heavily on the proceedings, cropping up in an occasional image or song or dedication, but speaks volumes as Laurie Anderson instead discusses the process of accepting loss in terms of her dog, her dog’s sight, the twin towers, a world before the omnipresence of modern technology, and a mother she feels she never genuinely loved. As with all of Laurie Anderson’s work, Heart of a Dog is a writer’s delight, an intense meditation on the bizarre nature of language, but it stands as her most fiercely personal work to date. It not only covers the whirlwind of painful change & transition she’s survived in recent years; it also lays out in simple, clear terms how she sees the known world & the unknown one that follows. Nearly every word, sound, and image in the film was created by Anderson herself and by the end credits the film feels like a snapshot of her very soul, as opposed to the snapshot of America’s soul presented in Home of the Brave.