Posted by Nathaniel Thompson on July 27, 2016
Earlier this year I made a trek with three friends to Stockholm where we got to experience firsthand the Eurovision Song Contest, that annual feast of musical excess, questionable taste, vocal acrobatics, and international squabbling. This year proved to be no exception, and though it’s still a niche event in the United States, all of Europe and many other countries (particularly Israel and Australia) treat it like a major sporting event. Tradition holds that the winner’s country hosts the following year’s contest, so it was Sweden’s sixth turn to be taken over for a couple of weeks by Eurovision fans.
Not surprisingly, you couldn’t walk through a store or sit through an event without hearing the name “ABBA” at least a few times. Sweden’s greatest pop music export, the fabulous foursome famously won the contest in 1974 with “Waterloo,” energizing a career that would burn brightly until the group’s dissolution in 1982. Since 2013, Stockholm has also been home to ABBA: The Museum, an eye-popping immersion in the group’s music, impact, and blazingly colorful outfits (including the weirdly lifelike figures in the photo below). However, the group’s popularity is perhaps greater than ever around the world, and as I concluded walking through rooms flickering with concert footage and music clips, they’re also one of the most cinematic music acts of all time.
What makes a band’s music cinematic? What’s that certain something that makes filmmakers constantly return to the musical wells of certain artists? Sure, a lot of music supervisors can lazily needle drop “Sympathy for the Devil” into any spooky movie or TV show, but some bands have the certain something that makes them fit the big screen like a glove. Whatever that is, ABBA has it in spades, and you can see it firsthand in the best moments of 1977’s ABBA: The Movie, making a return appearance on TCM this Saturday night on a ‘70s music double bill with Thank God It’s Friday. Shot in Australia during ABBA’s first worldwide tour, the film doesn’t even try for the wisp of a plot found in A Hard Day’s Night as it follows an Aussie DJ in his often foiled attempts to score a one-on-four interview with the band, which leads to a smorgasbord of concert footage showing Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad in their prime. The film was actually made as a sort of promotional tie-in with the group’s fifth studio release, ABBA: The Album, which shared the same promotional artwork and spawned such singles as “Take a Chance on Me” and “The Name of the Game.”
Lensed in spacious Panavision, this sparkly trifle was directed by none other than Lasse Hallström – yes, the man who went on to direct My Life as a Dog, Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, and The Hundred-Foot Journey. He actually cut his teeth directing ABBA music videos, most notably “Dancing Queen” and “S.O.S.,” which played a role in what would become known as the MTV style the following decade. However, this wasn’t the first celluloid excursion for Benny and Björn, who had already collaborated on the poppy score for Joe Sarno’s sexy 1968 film, The Seduction of Inga. (Yes, really!)
Though it may be hard to fathom now, ABBA went out of style a bit in the ’80s and threatened to become a cult obscurity like many other bands from the era, disco and otherwise. Technically ABBA only made slight concessions to the disco phase with parts of their 1979 Voulez-Vous album and the wildly overachieving B-side, “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight),” but with new wave, synthpop, and artists like Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen storming the charts, they became the sort of group people loved to listen to in private but never blasted in public. All four members went on to solo and joint ventures throughout the ‘80s (some hit singles for the women, the cult musical Chess for the men), but the future of their legacy seemed in question.
Then a funny thing happened in the ‘90s. Popular British synthpop group Erasure released a hugely popular EP of covers called Abba-esque in 1992, and closet ABBA fans started to make their voices heard. Two years later, ABBA hit movie theaters in a big way with the one-two punch of Australian films, the Oscar-winning drag comedy The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and one of the darkest “feel good” movies ever made, Muriel’s Wedding. (ABBA only officially gave approval to the latter film, with the former’s monologue about a precious Agnetha heirloom apparently going one step too far.) Both films’ soundtracks became bestsellers, with songs like “Mamma Mia,” “Waterloo,” “Dancing Queen,” and “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” finding a new generation of fans. ABBA songs soon started popping up in the most unexpected places, including significant roles on the soundtracks for a pair of 1999 films, Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam and Andrew Fleming’s Dick. More recently, “Waterloo” played a major role in the climax of Ridley Scott’s The Martian, completely violating the film’s all-disco soundtrack concept but packing a palpable nostalgic punch with audiences nevertheless.
However, 1999 proved to be a watershed ABBA year outside movie theaters thanks to Mamma Mia!, one of the longest-running stage musicals in history. Peppered with hits throughout their career but leaning heavily on their last three albums (widely regarded as their richest and most accomplished work), it bowed in the West End and made its Broadway bow in 2001 after a handful of U.S. engagements. A feature film version in 2008 starring Meryl Streep went on to become one of the most financially (but not critically) successful screen musicals, and though few noted it at the time, the adaptation makes some much-needed adjustments to the stage version’s book and improves on it in many respects. For example, it does a far more graceful job of handling the sexuality of Harry’s character, which is awkwardly shoehorned into the stage version’s finale but revealed here far earlier and with less sermonizing. The overall artistic merits of the production in either incarnation are still being debated (the word “kitsch” gets thrown around a lot), but in terms of keeping the ABBA flame burning in older viewers and igniting it in your ones, it certainly gets the job done.
All of which circles back around to my original question: what makes ABBA so cinematic? I think that ties in to the same reason their music doesn’t sound dated, even during that brief disco phase. The core strength of the melodies, the expert musicianship, the harmonizing of Frida and Agnetha’s vocals, and the dynamite audio engineering of Michael B. Tretow are all major parts of their enduring appeal, but there’s something substantial under the musical surface that causes it to resonate between generations. Their music forms a kind of journey that starts with typical Euro bubblegum pop ranging from the brilliant (“Waterloo,” “S.O.S.”) to the baffling (“King Kong Song,” anyone?). From there you can feel a progression throughout the ’70s as the music becomes deeper, more bittersweet, and more pained, mirrored by the two broken relationships that would ultimately lead to the group’s (still unofficial) demise. There’s a definite turning point in 1976′s “Dancing Queen,” the biggest song from their album Arrival and their signature tune for years until “Mamma Mia!” and others overtook it in pop culture cachet. On the surface it’s a catchy dance song about a young girl having the time of her life out on the dance floor… but it’s sung entirely in the second person by someone who’s clearly older, more wistful, and more experienced, watching a fleeting moment of joy in someone who’s destined to grow up.
Muriel’s Wedding tapped into some of the sadness at the heart of the song (when the protagonist says she wants life to be like an ABBA song, she doesn’t quite understand what that really implies), but that’s nothing compared to what was to come with the group’s final three albums (Voulez-Vous in 1979, Super Trouper in 1980, and The Visitors in 1981) and its last single, a haunting one-off called “The Day Before You Came” about a life of heartache endured before the arrival of possible true love. When you hit the ’80s,the clearly wounded but artistically formidable foursome is singing about some very heady stuff: the destructive impulses of a breakup (“The Winner Takes It All,” “When All Is Said and Done,” “One of Us”), a parent’s loss of a child’s innocent devotion (“Slipping Through My Fingers”), and the darker side of a possessive new passion (“Lay All Your Love on Me”), to name but a few examples. And just look at the cover art! It looks gorgeous, but it’s also as moody and ambiguous as anything else that decade.
Even here the songs still sound as slick and poppy as always, but it’s the balance of glittering arrangements and damaged emotions that keeps filmmakers coming back to ABBA each decade and finding new inspiration in compositions that sound as if they were tailor made for the movies right from the beginning.
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