Is this the real life or is this just fantasy? A definitive answer one way or another might help explain the sudden rush of music-related movies at the local multiplex. Hollywood has always provided a steady flow of muso documentaries and rock biopics, and the check-1-2 punch of the Oscar-winning Bohemian Rhapsody followed by Rocketman means plenty more musical origin stories are on their way.
But these perennials have recently been joined by a gaggle of intriguing films approaching their subjects from often unexpected angles. Look at the cheeky Beatles-deleting fantasia Yesterday. Or the Natalie Portman-starring Vox Lux, a fictional biopic of a highly strung pop star featuring music by Scott Walker and Sia. Or the upcoming Blinded By The Light, in which Springsteen’s righteous blue-collar anthems help a British-Pakistani teen endure Thatcher’s bleak 1980s Britain.
Each of these movies has something to say about the power of music and how it
can reverberate through our lives, and all are arguably more interesting than the usual rollicking biopic with its rather predictable struggle/success/burnout/resurgence trajectory.
This week we can add another musical outlier to the list: Balance, Not Symmetry channels the spirit of sweaty Scottish warrior-poets Biffy Clyro, perpetually topless purveyors of bowel-quaking but cathartic rock. Most soundtrack albums are composed long after filming is completed but here the Biffy songs actually helped inspire the story (songwriter Simon Neil gets a co-writing credit on the film).
Balance, Not Symmetry follows a tumultuous period in the life of Caitlin (Laura Harrier), a student preparing to finish her final year at Glasgow School of Art. It opens with her American father’s funeral, which sends Caitlin’s heartbroken Scottish mother Mary (Kate Dickie) into a dangerous spiral. Struggling to process her grief and failing to find inspiration for her upcoming degree show, Caitlin seems adrift – even her effervescent best friend Hannah (Bria Vinaite) struggles to get through to her. Might a headlong dive into the city’s hedonistic nightlife be the answer, or just provide another convenient means of blotting things out?
It takes a brief period to acclimatise to Balance, Not Symmetry’s visual and verbal rhythms: in each scene, the actors are improvising in the moment from a plot outline. It’s a naturalistic approach cultivated by Welsh director Jamie Adams, a seemingly tireless independent film-maker who has made eight films in the past four years. It sometimes makes for stuttering moments but anyone who has ever tried to comfort a friend who has lost someone close to them will likely feel a twinge of recognition at these stumbling attempts to make a connection. The overlapping, ad hoc dialogue also often adds almost unbearable verisimilitude, particularly during a morning-after kitchen argument that is so emotionally loaded and unbearably awkward you might feel your stomach cramp up in spontaneous empathy.
From these unvarnished scenes, the film will occasionally dive into sequences where the soundtrack – inventive and eclectic even by Biffy’s often proggy standards – swells and creates a transportive heightened reality. While some of these transitions work better than others, the effect is deeply immersive and often rather moving.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
At its heart, Balance, Not Symmetry is a film about how art, be it painting, music or film, can change how you perceive yourself and the world, so it feels appropriate that sometimes the songs elbow in and actively take over. Such an experimental film is unlikely to overtake something like the hit-packed Yesterday at the box office but there are many moments to savour here, and not just for Biffy obsessives.
Balance, Not Symmetry is in cinemas from August 1