Abba: The Movie Review
Abba: The Movie captures the band arguably at the peak of their career, between 1976’s 'Arrival' and 1977’s 'The Album', a number of whose tracks feature in the movie as fantasy video tracks. Trying to pinpoint Abba’s peak however is somewhat difficult since the band broke up in 1982 without ever seeing any real decline in their musical creativity – even in the midst of their personal problems and break-up of their marriages, they were creating songs of deep emotional intensity and lyrical poignancy in tracks like The Winner Takes It All and One of Us. It is just as hard to pinpoint the peak of Abba’s popularity, which has not seemed to have diminished in the decades subsequent to their break-up, but I think it’s fair to say that the height of Abbamania is effectively captured during their Australian tour of March 1977.
Although he would subsequently become known as the director of internationally successful and Oscar winning films as My Life As A Dog, Chocolat and The Cider House Rules, at the time of making Abba: The Movie, Lasse Hallström was known only for the making of many of Abba’s promotional videos – including Mamma Mia, S.O.S. and Waterloo. Making a feature film in Panavision of the band while on tour was another matter entirely, particularly as the director, rather than just shooting straight concert footage of the band on tour, wanted to incorporate the fictional storyline of DJ seeking an elusive interview with the band into the film. The results are mixed, Hallström never really making the plot terribly interesting or original, but through the stunning widescreen photography of the concert performances and the documentary footage of the band dealing with the adulation and hysteria of press and fans, he does effectively show the whole rare experience of Abba as a performing and touring unit.
The plotline of the film is centred around Ashley Wallace (Robert Hughes), a DJ for the Australian Radio station Radio 2TW, who is given the task of making a 2 Hour Special on the phenomenon of Abba, who are about to embark upon a one-week tour of Australia. The radio special is due to go out on the final day of the tour and the boss wants an exclusive up-close and personal interview as the cornerstone of the show. A country music DJ, Ashley is woefully under-prepared, lacking even a basic knowledge of pop music and failing to obtain a press pass, he misses the arrival of the band at Sydney airport and fails to get admitted to their press conference or the opening concert of their Australian tour. He doesn’t give up however, following the band across Australia from Sydney to Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne in search of the elusive exclusive interview with Agnetha, Frida, Benny and Björn.
The storyline is a little dull, obvious and predicable but Robert Hughes, along with Tom Oliver as the Tour Manager, Taxi Driver and Barman, put in likeable performances and even some fine moments of humour in the fantasy sequences. The journalistic approach does however give an effective documentary perspective on the attitudes towards the band from the press and public, which at this point in their career, and particularly in Australia, were at near hysteria level. The film also takes a particularly unpretentious attitude towards the band, seeming to capture them as they are; meeting the press, warming up in the dressing room, reading newspaper headlines and reviews in hotels (although it is true that many of these sequences were filmed back in Stockholm long after the tour).
What most fans will want to see however is the rare footage of the band performing live in concert, particularly given their reluctance to undertake many tours in their time together, mainly due to Agnetha Fältskog taking her responsibilities as a mother seriously. The concert footage in the film is thrilling, capturing many aspects of the Abba live performance and most of the songs performed during the tour, but frustratingly restricting it all to short clips that rarely allow for more than a minute of each song to be heard. What we do get to see are the famous costumes, mostly white and edged with glitter and gold – the guys in their capes and bellbottomed jumpsuits, the girls in the skimpiest of tunics and most revealing of skintight leggings – Agnetha making the most of any moment she is not singing to demonstrate why she had just been voted as having the most attractive bottom in Europe. Although the recordings were undoubtedly subsequently re-worked in the studio, there is a freshness and verve to the performances here that is effectively captured in the magnificently photographed Panavision footage. In this respect, the most successful moments in the film are when the music is played in full, whether in live context (only Dancing Queen is performed in full on stage and it is magnificent) or in the imaginatively shot fantasy sequence inserts for new songs The Name of the Game (one of my favourite Abba songs) and the majestic Eagle - each through their full performance allowing the true strength of Abba's songs to come thorugh. It’s also worth noting that the otherwise unreleased Get On The Carousel from the ‘Girl With The Golden Hair’ mini-musical is given a fair hearing in the concert footage here.
Abba: The Movie is a Polar Music Production released in the UK by Fremantle. It is available as a Standard and as a 2-Disc Special Edition. The Special Edition DVD, presented in a fold-out digipack, includes an exclusive interview with Lasse Hallström and Bjorn and Benny from the band, filmed specifically for the release of the DVD, a tour souvenir programme gallery, a memorabilia gallery, the original trailer and TV ads for Abba, The Album. The Standard Edition (reviewed here) has no extra features, but comes with an excellent 20-page booklet on the making of the movie. It is Region 0 and in PAL format. The film is divided into 16 chapters, but the chaptering divisions are rubbish, taking you into the middle of scenes and songs without any rhyme or reason.
The picture quality is not perfect, but there is a lot to be impressed with here. The image is certainly flawless in as far as it lacks marks, damage or artefacts of any kind, providing a spotless anamorphically enhanced 2.35:1 picture. There are no real problems with digital artefacts or macro-blocking, although I saw shimmer in the horizontal lines of steps in one scene. There also appears to be an issue with combing, but this is not really perceptible in normal playback. The coloured lighting of the concert footage is captured well with remarkable clarity even in the lowest luminosity of red lighting. The only issue I had with the transfer is that the print looks a little dark and the blacks, although solid, are a bit too deep and impenetrable, showing no shadow detail. Concert footage consequently looks rather dark and elsewhere colour tones look a little flattened out. With this, the combing and the running time, it's possible this is a NTSC to PAL conversion.
The film comes with the choice of DTS and Dolby Digtial 5.1 mixes as well as a standard stereo Dolby Digital 2.0 mix. The surround mixes are perfectly acceptable here as the film was recorded with an original 4-channel mix. As far as the DTS mix goes, it’s fairly effective but doesn’t have the full body that you might expect. The nature of the concert performance demands that it be played loud, but the limitations of the original soundtrack are noticeable at this kind of volume, being a little bit too bright and shrill on the treble side, with bass sounds a little muddy. Concert footage also has crowd noise throughout the performance of the songs, which adds to the trace of background noise but does also contributes to the live ambience and impression of crowd hysteria. When sound reaches a very high pitch it does crackle slightly – but this happens very rarely and is not a problem that will be evident to everyone.
English hard of hearing subtitles are included for the standard dialogue but not for song lyrics. Subtitles are also available in a number of other languages.
Other than the very informative 20-page full colour booklet, there are no extra features on the Standard Edition DVD itself.
With all due respect to fans of The Beatles, I’m of the opinion that Abba are probably the greatest pop band we’ve ever seen, their music achieving a unique perfection of finely crafted melodies, superb arrangements and vocal harmonies, harnessing the best studio techniques to craft unique and imaginative pop songs. This film however doesn’t do justice to Abba as a band. Although it promises to be an up-close and personal look at Abba at the peak of their career, Abba: The Movie fails to shed any light on the personal or working motivations of the band, while the cut-up nature of the concert footage is extremely frustrating for anyone longing to see full-length versions of songs in what is clearly an extraordinary concert experience. It does however document the band as they were on tour very well, with any contrivance restricted to the fictional plot occurring around the band’s tour. Perhaps best of all, by not delving below the surface too far, the movie at least retains and helps build up the mystique that surrounds the group.