despite the gloriously crushing blow delivered by rob reiner and his this is spinal tap associates, the rockumentary remains in a rude state of health. in recent years, we’ve seen everything from the brian jonestown massacre’s anton newcombe sending personalised shotgun shells to his musical rivals (dig!) to the struggle by metallica members to escape adolescence – two-and-a-half decades late – by means of a $40,000-a-month therapist (some kind of monster).
one thing we haven’t seen, however, is a band playing in a tearoom to grandchildren and grandparents. nor at a traditional “thorrablot” meal to a group of pagans. nor outside a dilapidated farm building, to no one at all, save a few passing animals.
yet icelandic four-piece sigur r&s – whose first film, released on monday, features all the above scenarios and more – have never been the most conventional of bands. in their 14-year career, they have never written a lyric in english, instead inhabiting a slowly swelling, celestial soundworld that resembles alien church music more than anything normally designated pop. neither do they play the game on a promotional level, compounding their notorious interview shyness by releasing a third album entitled only ( ) and lacking anything so crass as track titles.
against all odds, however, they have gone on to become a major-label act of considerable international stature. they have sold 2m albums worldwide and promoted their last album – takk, the follow-up to ( ) – with a mammoth 13-month tour. fun was had, no doubt, but one suspects it was a gruelling experience for a band so apparently uninterested in the trappings of rock stardom. so when, finally, they went home, they celebrated with a two-week icelandic tour of free, usually unannounced shows. they took with them a 40-man film crew, whose live footage forms the basis of the film, suitably entitled heima, or “homeland”.
“it was two ideas that we had,” explains bassist georg holm, sitting in a west london pub the day after the film’s rapturously received uk premiere at the bbc electric proms.
“originally the film was supposed to be just one show in a great location, to document what we had been building up [on the tour]. then the other idea was to do a tour round iceland because we’d played so few shows there over the years. the two just came together. it’s lucky they did because i think the original idea would have been quite boring.”
it’s a typically humble statement from a notoriously reserved band but in relative terms, it’s certainly true. any straight concert footage would pale next to the eventual film, compiled from two weeks of shows, combined with impossibly beautiful shots of iceland’s people and natural geography – and, at the insistence of director dean deblois, rare band interviews. the intention, according to manager john best, was less travis live at t in the park, more jazz on a summer’s day, the music documentary acclaimed not only for its stellar line-up but for its unusual camera work and lingering audience shots.
“i love jazz on a summer’s day,” enthuses frontman jón birgisson, universally known as jonsi, visibly more animated than at any other point during our interview. “the only music i listen to is old jazz: django reinhardt, billie holiday, chet baker. but that film is amazing, unbelievable. just the best. the camera shots are really still and people are moving through the frame. you get a real sense of closeness to the performers. that was what we wanted to go for.”
about as far from travis live at t in the park as one can imagine, heima is, like anything else in the sigur r&s cannon, a meticulously executed epic of gentle power. it’s also a moving paean to their country and its culture.
“patriotic is such a negative word,” says georg. “but i think all icelanders have a deep love for iceland. it’s very deep-rooted. every time i drive home from the airport, i give a kind of sigh of relief. the film taught us a lot too. the others were in the minibus but i took my family in the car and drove myself for the whole tour. i experienced iceland in a completely different way: it’s much more amazing than i ever thought it was.”
this sense of pride and wonder pervades each stunning shot of rock formation or snowscape (a snug audio-visual fit from the band whose glacial epics soundtracked david attenborough’s planet earth). yet there’s also a sense in heima that this landscape, and the traditional way of life that accompanies it, is under threat from the country’s increasing industrialisation. it’s a point made most poignantly when the band performs at a tiny encampment set up to protest against the proposed karahnjukar dam. as a gesture of solidarity, they abandon the generator and perform acoustically for the first time, a daring decision for a band that has relied so heavily on thick, sustained textures.
“at first, everything seemed so naked,” says jonsi, whose other-worldly lead vocal has even stronger an effect on the neckhairs in this sparser context.
“but then it was like, oh, it’s kind of fun to play acoustic. it’s so fragile.”
inspired by the dam performance, they instead proposed a cd of six existing tracks, substantially re-worked in acoustic form, alongside a companion disc of five (fully electric) rare or unreleased tracks. the resulting double album, hvarf/heim, may have been partly overshadowed by the film’s enthusiastic critical reception, but at the very least, it maintains the high standards of the existing sigur r&s discography.
in conjunction with the film, it will also no doubt see their international following expand still further – not that the band themselves seem overly concerned.