For her eighth album, Icelandic pop star Bjork wanted to explore links between music, technology, and nature. Her first set of songs for the iPad era was produced with new digital and analog instruments, and spawned an app that’s now part of MOMA’s permanent collection. But the high-tech music was only occasionally thrilling, and the concept came ringed with awkward pitfalls (see “Virus,” a science lesson contorted into a metaphor for lust).
As an album, Biophilia was often detached and dull. Live, though, Bjork’s charming presence and swooping vocals helped redeem lyrics that sound like full paragraphs from a geography textbook. Peter Strickland and Nick Fenton’s Bjork: Biophilia Live tries to capture this success, blending footage from the tour’s last show with the Planet Earth–type visuals that played above the stage. We see the singer wearing what looks like futuristic bubble wrap, surrounded by a dancing choir, while the instruments burble and buzz.
The film pulls off a few gorgeous juxtapositions — the moon rising directly above Bjork’s head, a mushroom growing in time-lapse footage amid the choir — and probably gives a better view of the performance than actual concert tickets did. (Could anyone in the cheap seats tell that those massive pendulums onstage are a kind of bizarre new string instrument?) But the visual tricks lose their potency before the halfway mark, leaving the energy of Biophilia Live to rise and fall with the music.
And onscreen, Bjork and her musicians simply can’t hold us rapt through the many abstract, ponderous moments the way they could onstage. There is a lesson about music and technology here, but it’s not one the directors intended.