“I sometimes get this strange and sort of uncontrollable urge to want to go home.“
-Georg Hólm, member of the band Sigur Rós
Majestic, grand, expansive, surreal, breath-taking, stunning, arresting, inspiring, beautiful, staggering, personal…and I’m already out of words to describe the fairly recently released film by the Icelandic band, Sigur Rós. (Okay, it was released back in December of ’07. I just hadn’t gotten around to checking it out until a couple weeks ago.)
Sigur Rós is a band that has been making their other-worldly, alien, and powerfully intimate music for close to a decade. They sing in Icelandic and a lyrical non-language that is roughly translated from the Icelandic name for it as “Hopelandic.” It is not a Tolkien-like “language” per se, as its “words” mean nothing in a literal sense but, in many ways, it serves some of the same purposes as language. I don’t happen to be fluent in Icelandic, so I can’t tell the difference between the two anyway — and it doesn’t matter. Each album they’ve released has found them making music that breaks beyond the barriers of language to get as close to communicating feelings and emotions that language can only hope to convey, or struggle to give an idea of.
Yet for most of their careers, the band members themselves have remained enigmatic and closed-off, buffered from the world by their ethereal music. Heima, which means “at home” or “homeland,” takes us beyond that barrier and uses the music to immerse us in the things that make them who they are, where they come from, what their “home” is.
(Note: The band released the main feature portion of this film on youtube last week, which I posted on this post. But it has since been taken down. I’m expecting, or hoping, the band will make it available again some time.)
In the intro, and first song on the film, the band is shown performing onstage with a thin, veil-like canvas in front of them. They are backlit by bright lights so although you can see their figures vaguely, it’s their shadows on the canvas that draw your focus. They couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate start because the very music they are performing on camera at that moment is the veil that they have been hiding behind all these years.
As the song unfolds and swells up, the camera focuses on a small stream or river and — it takes a little while but you soon notice — the film is being rewound and the river is being depicted going backwards, heading upstream in reverse. As the song builds even more, you see a huge waterfall falling up a cliff, gathering up its mist on the way. That image is contrasted with an image of tiny ripples in a pool of water radiating in reverse and traveling back up to their small icy origins. The song ends as you are shown the trailing wake of a ship, with Iceland surrounding the view, as the boat arrives on shore. This appropriately starts off the film and effectively illustrates the point of the whole project: Sigur Ros returning back to their “source.”
Before I go any further, I want to make a point that Disc 2, the bonus disc, is the real gem of the release. The first disc is informative and has interviews spliced in throughout. But, as we all know, Sigur Ros aren’t known for their wildly entertaining interviews. It’s not that they are horribly rude people — I just really don’t think it’s their thing. The bonus disc for the film takes out all the cuts and interview splices and leaves just the music and the cinematography to stand on their own. And what is left is pure, unfiltered, non-stop beauty. Watch the main disc when you first get it, then watch the bonus disc every time after.
This film is different from the typical band tour/concert DVD. Unlike common band releases, Heima puts the focus on the home of Sigur Ros, Iceland itself, placing the music up against the riveting backdrop of the land and the unpretentious, intriguing people. The people of Iceland are featured just as much as the band. When they start playing “Se Lest” the camera is instead pointed at the audience from the stage, and you see the excitement in the faces of two young friends as they settle in; the cool, thoughtful gaze of a young boy standing next to an older woman who mirrors his demeanor; the wonder and awe in the smile of a little girl who can’t seem to decide exactly what to settle her darting eyes on.
The film has so many magical moments in it, captured with the perfect amount of delicacy and power.
I always thought their song “Agaetis Byrjun” was the closest thing one can get to being back in a mother’s womb — and how the song is portrayed in the film sort of confirms this belief for me. Footage of the band privately performing a stripped-down version of it in a small elementary school gym by themselves alternates back and forth with shots of a simple, innocent day on the beach that captures children of all ages simply…playing. As the song comes to an end, the camera, through time-lapse photography, shows the footprints and bicycle tracks the children made on the sandy beach slowly disappearing, illustrating the bittersweet end of childhood that we are all familiar with. As a bonus, bass player Georg Holm’s daughter waddles up to the band and walks around while they’re playing — poking, wandering, and investigating while the band play on — with Holm looking on lovingly at his little girl.
The physical land of Iceland plays a huge role in the film as well. The natural landscape of the country holds arguably the largest presence of anything or anyone in the film. And the band and filmmakers take full advantage. Sigur Ros play all over Iceland — a large cave (!); a cozy, small grade-school gym; inside a huge, hollow concrete storage room of an abandoned fishery near a lake; the middle of open fields; a house/restaurant living room in front of no more than 20 or 30 people; in town squares; and yes, an actual big, normal, average, everyday concert venue.
After you’re done watching the film, the realization that the land and the people (and, by extension, the band members) are almost one and the same, has hit home time and again. The land and the people, along with the music, seem to alternate between describing and being described by each other…they are inseparable. That insight alone is what drives the whole work.
My favorite performance from the film is of the song “Olsen Olsen.” The band sets up in an idyllic field surrounded by tall, looming mountains, which act as a canvas to display the shadows of the swiftly moving clouds overhead. You see people come out entire families at a time — from the very old, to young siblings and cousins, to mothers carrying their babies wrapped up in thick warm blankets. There is a small bonfire being kept alive in the crowd. The band begin playing just as the sun is about to be relieved of its duty by the moon. The camera and angles alternate between shots of the band, the audience, the breath-taking surroundings, and captivating photographic shots of the nearby town — which is now eerily empty because everyone is out on the field for the evening. I say I wish I could’ve been at certain concerts all the time, maybe too much…but this one…I really wish I could’ve been there.
In the last performance of the film, the band is performing on a large, elaborate stage in front of hundreds of people. And as their final song comes to a climax, the thin veil-like curtain from the opening scene drops down in front of the stage. The song works itself into a euphoric, exhilarating crescendo while the band once again slip behind the veil of their music.
You don’t really find out many biographical things about the band through the film. Their interviews are short and don’t reveal what their hobbies are, who their role models were, how their parents were like, or any other personal information. But when the credits start rolling, you do feel like you know the band very intimately, and that they let you into their lives farther than they could have through a lifetime of interviews and albums.
I really do not know what is better about Heima: the music or the cinematography. The land or the people. The band or their home. Fortunately, if you take one, the other comes with it.
Here is their performance of “Olsen Olsen” from the film — just to give you a little, tiny idea (this is from the uncut, uninterrupted version found on the bonus disc):
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Songs of the Day: (right click and “save as”)
These songs and many more — both released and unreleased tracks — have been made available by the band, for free, HERE.
(Final Note: I’ve mentioned this before but if you didn’t know, this blog got its name from Sigur Ros’ song, “Hoppipolla,” which, translated from Icelandic, means “hopping into puddles.”)