When Björk Met Attenborough (2013)


three star

At just over 45 minutes, the short-form documentary When Björk Met Attenborough is more or less supplementary material for the brilliant Biophilia Live concert film. The documentary’s central conversation between the idiosyncratic musician Björk and famed naturalist David Attenborough is philosophically stimulating, but is not all the film has to offer. The movie also serves as a key to understanding exactly what Björk was trying to accomplish with the muli-media Biophilia project, especially her ambitions in trying to change the way we “see, hear, think about and make music”. She says early in the run time that “It seems to be around this age I am now you have to make a sort of spiritual statement” and When Björk Met Attenborough does a great job of detailing just how ambitious her statement is.

In her attempt to position Biophilia as a spiritual statement, Björk looks back on the way she experienced music as a child. She speaks fondly of singing on her lonely walks to school through inclement Icelandic weather, music serving as a private conversation between her and Nature. She also expresses frustration with how schools taught her to interact with music through ancient Europen composers and non-intuitive instruments. With Biophilia, Björk attempts to rewire how music, nature, and technology interact with each other into a more innate process. She begins this journey with a tour through London’s Museum of Natural History, the largest natural history collection in the world, guided by Sir David Attenborough.

The central conversation between Björk and Attenborough is unfortunately a little stiff and, well, unnatural. Ignoring the artifice of the encounter, though, the ideas discussed about where nature & music meet are thoroughly engaging. Lyrebirds mimicking ring tones & chain saws, the evolutionary advantage of a beautiful singing voice, and the prevalent sexuality in modern pop music all make for great philosophical fodder. The true highlight, however, is their discussion of the Biophilia song “Crystalline” in the museum’s massive crystal room. Attenborough & Björk pick apart the “mathematical beauty” of crystal formations & other natural phenomenon and how Nature’s patterns are mimicked in music’s time signatures. It’s a lofty concept, but one made convincing by two abstract minds who love to look for such connections between science and art.

The “Crystalline” segment opens other threads for the film to follow, especially in how technology can be exploited to harness the stated connection between nature & music. First, the film demonstrates through cymatics (the study of sound’s visible patterns) how the song “Crystalline” looks, as opposed to how it sounds. Other inventions like the sharpsichord, a rigged Tesla coil, and swinging pendulum harps that use gravity to play their notes all prompt the audience to consider “the way we see, hear, think about, and make music”. Björk also collaborates with legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks and several software developers to utilize touchscreen technology in computer apps that create new ways of making music in a more intuitive way. She not only integrates existing technology in Biophilia, but also pushes to create her own.

When considered in isolation, When Björk Met Attenborough is an interesting intellectual exercise. When considered as part of Biophilia as a larger multi-media art piece it’s a Rosetta Stone, documenting a vastly ambitious work that tries to encompass music, nature, and technology in one definitive whole. The matter-of-fact tone of Tilda Swinton’s narration and Björk’s titular conversation with Attenborough makes this ambition seem perfectly natural and reasonably attainable. It’s not the kind of documentary that’s going to pick apart the ideas at play and question their validity. After all, the movie ends with Attenborough paying Björk a huge compliment. Instead it’s the kind of film that offers strange ideas at face value so the audience’s minds can run away with them and draw their own outlandish, philosophical conclusions.

-Brandon Ledet

Björk: Biophilia Live (2014)

“I do believe motion pictures are the significant art form of our time. And I think the main reason is, they’re an art form of movement, as opposed to static art forms of previous times. But another reason that they’re the preeminent art form is they’re part art and part business. They are a compromised art form, and we live in a somewhat compromised time. And I believe to be successful over the long run, unless you’re a Federico Fellini or an Ingmar Bergman or a true genius in filmmaking, you have to understand that you’re working in both an art and a business.” – Roger Corman

The concert movie is a disadvantaged art form, as it has a lot to prove out the gate to justify its place among other films. While documentaries & fictional films can pretend not to be what Roger Corman would call a “compromised” artistic commodity, the concert film is always conspicuously selling a product: the band or artist that’s performing. The blurred line between short film & advertisement is acceptable in a music video, because they’re generally free to access and easy to consume. A full-length concert film on the other hand, especially one with a theatrical release, has a much steeper hill to climb. It’s asking you to pay admittance to a long-form promotion, spectacle or not. This is an especially hard sell for someone that’s not already a dedicated fan of the product on display.

Although some concert films make no attempt to hide their commercial aspirations or reach an audience outside of their fan base (last year’s One Direction: Where We Are is a recent high-profile example), others bend over backwards to prove themselves worthy to be discussed among their less-scrutinized film peers. Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense proves itself a genre benchmark through its careful consideration of how the band’s literal stage presence affects its cinematic image.  Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars uses the silver screen to breathe life into the fictional character of the film’s title. The Band’s The Last Waltz uses some of that good old Scorsese grit to give the account of its “farewell concert” the feeling of an intimate late-night jam session shared between a few dozen (exceptionally talented) friends. I don’t mean to pick on the One Direction concert movie. The group has a wide enough fan-base that the demand for a no frills concert movie is loud enough on its own to justify Where We Are’s existence. I’m just trying to distinguish why Bjork’s Biophilia Live, a movie in the same distinctly commercial-minded genre, deserves to be considered among the best films of 2014.

Biophilia Live begins with the voice of famed naturalist David Attenborough making wild, unrealistic declarations over breathtaking nature footage befitting the TV series Planet Earth. Attenborough urges 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.” Holy shit. That’s quite an ambitious opener. The film itself nearly delivers on this majestic promise, 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. My favorite use of the nature footage arrives during this microcosmic section when crystals form over the image of Björk performing the song “Crystalline”, only to disappear in a blink to match the song’s violent rhythms. “Crystalline”‘s “internal nebula” & “crystalizing galaxies” lyrical phrasing also feels like the film’s tone in a nutshell. It’s in the stranger moments like this and like when vibrant mushrooms slowly expand in the foreground, leaving the stage antics out of focus that Biophilia Live shines brightest.

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 phenomenons, 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 of 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 a filmed 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. What’s most impressive is that the film succeeds.

Although Björk exhibited creative control through all aspects of the production, part of the film’s success is surely due to the involvement of British director Peter Strickland. Strickland had already established his skills in visually displaying reverence for sound in his 2013 film Berberian Sound Studio, a bizarre thriller that’s just as much homage to foley artists & sound engineers as it is to old school giallo movies. There’s a lot of maddening, horrific energy in Berberian’s dissociative conflict between its imagery & its sounds. Here he & co-director Nick Fenton instead synchronize sounds to their visual equals in the style of Björk’s previous music video collaborations with Michel Gondry. The dissociation occurs instead in how the images relate to each other: how the screens interact with the stage, how distant stars relate to plankton, etc.  Through various camera movement & editing techniques Biophilia Live creates a world that’s simultaneously intimate and expansive.

The live concert format is occasionally at odds with the film’s intimacy. The crowd sometimes intrudes mid-song, breaking the reverie with premature applause. Björk is appreciative of their presence at least, punctuating the end of each song with a polite “thank you”. Of course, the film’s very existence depends on Björk’s relationship with her audience, the same way the existence of One Direction’s Where We Are depends on theirs. Without a basic appreciation for Björk’s music, it’s unlikely that that someone would enjoy a feature-length document of one of her concerts.

What makes Biophilia Live remarkable is the ambition to reach beyond pleasing fans musically. It also asks its audience to contemplate the totality of Nature and how its individual parts interact and unite into a cohesive whole. It’s a zealous, far-reaching work that deserves to be included in the conversation of the best films released in 2014 as well as the best concert films of all time.

-Brandon Ledet