Icelandic Band Of Men and Monsters’ Documentary Is an Intimate Gem

About 15 years ago, after he’d worked on the story for Disney’s animated “Mulan” and co-directed “Lilo & Stitch” but before he took on the “How to Train Your Dragon” trilogy, Canadian filmmaker Dean DeBlois took a detour from animation into documentary film. His 2007 doc “Heima” followed the Icelandic band Sigur Rós as they toured their home country, performing huge outdoor shows and smaller concerts, interspersing interview footage in which the normally mysterious band talked about their work and their lives.

DeBlois spends most of his time working in animation to this day, but he still has a taste for Icelandic music and a knack for knowing how to put it on film. “Tíu,” which premiered at the Tribeca Festival, takes a different Icelandic band, Of Monsters and Men, and follows them on a trip around the country where they play music in a variety of locations that have special meaning to the band members.

But where “Heima” found Sigur Rós more often than not playing to big crowds, the 48-minute “Tíu” documents a trip that was of necessity private rather than public. Forced by the COVID-19 pandemic to cancel a tour that would have celebrated the 10th anniversary of their debut album, “My Head Is an Animal,” the band members simply played for themselves – in a lighthouse, on a boat, in empty rooms both big and small.

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The result doesn’t capture the more upbeat and fully-produced modern-folkish sound that made Of Monsters and Men one of Iceland’s most successful musical exports since Bjork and Sigur Rós; the band’s music in the film is more often than not acoustic, gentle and startlingly intimate, even when it plays out against the vast spaces of mountainous, rural Iceland.

DeBlois, one of two cameramen on the shoot, lays back and beautifully captures the rhythms of the music and of the band members themselves, who tell their story with quiet humor and relentless understatement. They sit around, reminisce, laugh and slip into song, and it’s all of a piece – not a concert movie, but a gentle, lyrical conversation with the band and with the land.

The best-known Icelandic music of the past few decades has typically been atmospheric, as these songs are, but also more aggressively experimental. And while Of Monsters and Men have a way of introducing quietly adventurous elements into their music, the performances in “Tíu” are stripped down and simple: mostly acoustic guitars from Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson and Brynjar Leifsson, understated bass from Kristján Páll Kristjánsson, a mixture of instruments, including percussion, from Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson and vocals, occasional guitar and keyboards from Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir.

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Starting in Hilmarsdóttir’s great-great grandmother’s house with a rendition of the charming and sprightly “Sugar in a Bowl,” they travel the country pulling out a mixture of songs, most of them older tunes that they haven’t recorded until now. (There’s an EP, also titled “Tíu,” that accompanies the film and provides more aggressive versions of some songs.)

While Þórhallsson, who mostly shares spokesperson duties with Hilmarsdóttir, says he hates “nostalgia or reminiscing” at one point, there’s something undeniably nostalgic about songs that in some cases date back to their teenage years. But it’s an utterly beguiling nostalgia as the band runs through a succession of gentle dreamscapes that become even more haunting for the way DeBlois shoots them with lovely economy against the stark and stunning Icelandic landscape.

This is intimate music in an expansive setting, and a lovely way to capture the artistry and humanity of this band. Apart from a brief blast toward the end, it’s a relentlessly understated approach that doesn’t capture the range of music Of Monsters and Men makes – but it’s a beautiful take on the band nonetheless, and one that never wears out its welcome.      

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