Since Bjork, that eternally eccentric spirit animal of contemporary pop, largely rejected screen acting following an untoppable turn in Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark,” a concert film is the closest thing to a starring vehicle that her fans can reasonably hope for. Happily, her utterly peculiar magnetism as a performer is enough to make “Bjork: Biophilia Live,” a dedicated recording of her 2013 tour closer at London’s Alexandra Palace, something of an event — even if pairing her with brilliant British auteur Peter Strickland (“Berberian Sound Studio”) doesn’t yield quite the singular result you’d expect. So visually and sonically inventive is Bjork’s own stage show that Strickland and co-director Nick Fenton have, perhaps wisely, decided against adding their own cinematic bells and whistles. If no landmark of the form, then, “Biophilia Live” scores as a captivating record of an artist in full command of her idiosyncratic powers
Though it’s too niche a proposition for extensive theatrical bookings, ancillary and multimedia prospects are anything but oh-so-quiet for Strickland and Fenton’s film. (The same art gallery circuit that accommodated the Icelandic star’s last screen outing — Matthew Barney’s experimental 2005 romance “Drawing Restraint 9” — should also register its interest.) One suspects Bjork wouldn’t have it any other way, given her championing of alternative distribution channels in her musical career: “Biophilia,” the 2011 project mostly showcased here, made history when it was released via Apple as the world’s first “app album,” its 10 tracks accompanied by interactive visual content.
Much of the imagery that debuted via this release was reintroduced and expanded in Bjork’s stage show, here recorded on Sept. 7, 2013 — the final performance in a two-year, 70-date world tour. As indicated by the album’s title, the visuals address themes of biological and ecological evolution; the show even begins with a spoken-word introduction from globally beloved naturalist David Attenborough. Images range from low-hanging moons to writhing molecular patterns in iridescent colors, shedding little light on some of the more opaque songs of the singer’s 21-year solo career but asserting her recent interest in phenomena larger than human feeling, from gravity to dark matter.
As such, the show had a cinematic quality even before being captured on camera by Strickland and Fenton, who join a distinguished line of auteurs associated with Bjork over the course of her career. (The “Biophilia” project began as a planned 3D film with Michel Gondry that was eventually shelved due to conflicting schedules.) Strickland, the British writer-director whose features “Katalin Varga” and “Berberian Sound Studio” were both ingenious lo-fi twists on genre formulae, isn’t the most extravagant stylist she’s ever worked with, but is an appropriately individual one. Fenton, meanwhile, is an accomplished editor best known for his subtle work in documentaries and the features of Clio Barnard and Richard Ayoade.
Though it’s lithely shot by Brett Turnbull — a d.p. with extensive experience in the concert-film format who also lensed Cirque du Soleil’s “Worlds Away” spectacular — with artful responsiveness to the show’s own intricate lighting schemes, the film steers generally clear of surplus visual detail. Only occasionally is imagery allowed to exceed its stage context and overwhelm the screen. Luminous crystallite structures are briefly, roughly superimposed over Bjork’s performance of “Crystalline”; most effectively of all, a delicate rendition of her gorgeous 1995 single “Isobel” gives way to an explosion of time-lapse fungi photography, literally mushrooming across the frame.
Not that Bjork’s personal stage presence has ever been dependent on such distractions. For all her fascination with high-concept accompaniment and accessories — there’s a positively Wonka-like glee to the way she introduces the “Scharpsichord,” a one-off solar-powered music box, at one point in her set — it’s her piercing, elastic voice and fey physicality that make her compelling to watch, even in far less ornamented environments. (Contributing to the delightful clutter here is Iceland’s female Graduale Nobili choir, onstage throughout and attired in what can only be described as disco-medieval robes.)
Bjork’s direct interaction with the audience is minimal, with each song punctuated by a coy, endearing “thank you” and little more. Yet her emotional connection to her material is palpable and entirely infectious: Her voice soars with near-erotic ecstasy on 2001’s paean to emotional intimacy “Hidden Place,” while show closer “Declare Independence” plainly envelops the audience in its joyous, foot-stomping anarchy. If Strickland and Fenton have erred at all in this suitably besotted portrait, it’s that their camera rarely zeroes in on their subject’s marvelously expressive face, here framed in cobalt-blue makeup and a vast Afro wig that resembles its own independent ecosystem. Bjork’s charm has always hinged on her ability to be guileless and unknowable at once; “Biophilia Live” is no exception.