Show Me Cinema #27: ABBA: the Movie

I don’t really think ABBA needs much of an introduction. Even if you’re not a big fan or not overly familiar with them, their fingerprints are all over pop culture and music today it’s almost impossible to miss them. Ever since breaking out internationally in 1974 when they won Eurovision Song Contest with their song Waterloo, ABBA has been one of the biggest and best selling musical groups in history, having sold an estimated 100-150 million records worldwide and many of their songs receiving frequent radio play and remaining popular amongst people of all ages. And of course them being Swedish you can bet your sweet ass that one is exposed to them at an early age. I often think of ABBA as our equivalent to the Beatles in terms of their cultural impact. But personally, I think they’re…fine? To put it in a slightly more appropriate way, I like them, but in tiny doses. I won’t deny that most of their songs are catchy pop songs and I’d happily dance along to Dancing Queen, S.OS. or Mamma Mia if they’re playing, but they’re just a little too squeaky clean for my personal taste. I prefer heavier music in general (give me Europe or Ebba Grön anyday over ABBA) so it’s perhaps not too surprising that I’d feel this way. My general lack of interest in ABBA is one of the reasons I’ve avoided Mamma Mia the musical for many years, even though I know it’s every wine mom’s favorite film. But in recent times I’ve been garnering a stronger interest in concert films in general, and felt perhaps the only film fitting for my column would be ABBA: the Movie from 1977, as it’s the only one I can think of to feature a major Swedish artist so this felt like a given, regardless of my personal feelings towards ABBA.

It would however be a mistake to call it a concert film, as maybe only half of it is a concert film of sorts and the rest of the film is a sort of blend between documentary and fiction. So think less The Last Waltz or The Song Remains the Same and think more A Hard Day’s Night. Essentially, the four members of ABBA, you know the ones (Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad), are going on a concert tour in Australia, where there is an ABBA craze taking place. In the midst of this, a radio dj (and future sex criminal) Robert Hughes is tasked by his boss to get an interview with the pop group. He tries but fails repeatedly due to his own stupidity and ends up traveling halfway through Australia to get an exclusive interview.

So there’s more or less two different movies going on, a documentary about ABBA’s Australian tour in 1976 and this rather clumsy and repetetive comedy about a dumb dj who just fails at everything. I have to say I was more invested in the concert footage as the humor is fairly routine and it…doesn’t include ABBA. For a movie called ABBA: the Movie, you’d think they’d be in focus but the film seems almost more interested in this douchebag journalist trying to score his damn interview whilst I wanted to know more about ABBA and their personal reactions to their tour and its expansiveness. The fact that the comedy plot was written on the plane to Australia from Sweden makes perfect sense in that regard and probably only existed as a mere outline rather than a completed script, which can be a good thing if it’s done right but not in this case.

That said, the concert footage is very well shot and it’s interesting to see genuine ABBA live performances in hd. The film was shot on 35mm film and Panavision, so we get a real sense of the wideness of the audiences flocking to each concert and of the stage, with ABBA performing front and center and their backing band in the background. We do also get a sense of the hideous yet charming 70s wardrobes that are worn by our musical protagonists. Agnetha and Anni-Frid are mostly donning hotpants and golden everything else including boots and capes etc. Benny and Björn are a little less flashy but still noticeable, with armless shirts (in gold of course) being worn on stage. It’s very much of its time and looking back at it it’s kind of cringeworthy, but I’ll gladly take 70s fashion over 80s fashion.

There are areas where I think they really missed an opportunity to explore some more interesting areas, in particular during the performance of I’m a Marionette, where the performance (in which the introduction to it by some stagehand felt like something out of Spinal Tap) are cut to shots of the ABBA members doing what’s expected of them, namely greet journalists, go to concert venues, perform etc. With the title of the song and its lyrics, it felt like this could’ve been used to really explore exploitation of the music industry on its artists and having to keep up an image of themselves for the public that doesn’t necessarily correspond with their real selves. There’s one scene with the journalist on the plane to Perth (or Melbourne not entirely sure) where he goes through the members and their “stereotypes.” Anni-Frid for instance is characterized as self-critical and more withdrawn, and it would’ve been nice to see some sort of juxtaposition to this to show there’s more to these artists than the labels and traits thrown upon them by the music press. But this opportunity isn’t taken really, at least not anywhere near to something that could be described as satisfactory.

So in conclusion, is ABBA: the Movie worth a watch? I mean I guess it is? If you’re a diehard ABBA fan it’s probably a must, but if you’re just looking for some 95 minutes of time to kill then this’ll probably do the trick for you and never really gets boring so I wouldn’t worry too much on that front. Just don’t go expecting or hoping for a revelatory and introspective documentary of one of the world’s biggest pop groups. Just go in expecting an ABBA song really, it’s gonna be flashy and mostly surface level stuff but still nice and enjoyable. As some of the audience members being interviewed say “they’re nice, they’re not too loud and they don’t smash their instruments.” That’s this movie in a nutshell really. It’s fun I guess, it’s ABBA, it’s gay, it’s whatever you wanna call it, it’s nice.


Published by davidalkhed

Co-creator, critic and columnist for A Fistful of Film.

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