Remembering ABBA: The Movie
By Julie Burns | September 21, 2021
Shot across six weeks in 1977 on their seminal Australian 10-day tour, ABBA: The Movie remains the band’s definitive in-concert document…
According to one review critic: “[ABBA: The Movie] was really the first widescreen pop music showcase… It remains a very rare portrait of a 70s pop band at the height of its popularity.”
Digitally remastered and re-released in 2008, ABBA: The Movie was first conceived as a home movie, a TV Special, then a documentary, before this ‘rockumentary concert’ movie.
As writer/director Lasse Hallström’s first film in English, he later found fame with movie hits including What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, Chocolat, and The Cider House Rules. He also directed the majority of ABBA’s 38 promotional videos, from 1974 debut Waterloo to their farewell Head Over Heels, in 1982.
Chiming with the release of ABBA: The Album, ABBA: The Movie spans songs from the LP plus earlier hits, and such otherwise unavailable gems as Get On The Carousel.
By the time of ABBA’s arrival in Australia on 27 February 1977, the group’s record sales had eclipsed that of The Beatles. We meet the Swedish ‘Fab Four’ at a ‘welcome’ press conference. When asked: “Is every performance ‘traumatic’?”, Benny answers, “Every show you’re nervous,” and, “I’d hate the sound of 30,000 fans booing!” As for Agnetha: “I find the travelling very hard. I start to think, ‘Where am I? Which city?’” Björn says: “It’s an unsocial life, it kills creativity in a way I don’t like.” Livewire Frida adds: “It’s boring to travel, fantastic to be onstage!” Did they make loads of money? “A lot of money coming in, a lot of tax to pay. Money isn’t that important, it’s liking the work that is,” says Benny. And to Agnetha, how did it feel having the sexiest bottom in pop? “How can I answer that? I don’t know, I haven’t seen it!” (It still caused some off-tone-titled gig reviews such as ‘Agnetha’s Bottom Tops Show!’). ‘ABBA Risk Their Lives’ ran a more serious headline, when rain-swept arena stages threatened danger (a distinct hazard for then-pregnant Agnetha, necessitating many of her scenes shot in close-up).
The quartet, clearly in their heyday, are dynamic onstage. For optimum acoustic recording, the film sticks mainly with one indoor gig at Perth Entertainment Centre. Latest album tracks are showcased: He Is Your Brother; Eagle; the startling Agnetha and Anni-Frid duet to I’m A Marionette.
Classic hits, of course, rock the crowd: SOS, Money, Money, Money, So Long, Rock Me, to Fernando; the girls’ favourite, Dancing Queen, and their lesser-known slower duets, I’ve Been Waiting For You to Why Did It Have To Be Me?.
More material not instantly recognisable includes Benny playing his prog-rock pop Intermezzo No. 1; the instrumental Stoned and Swedish traditional songs Johan Snippen and Polka Goes, performed by Benny on accordion.
Even the film’s country-and-western track intro is an early 70s Björn and Benny composition: Please Change Your Mind, performed by Swedish country band Nashville Train – who were made up of several musicians from ABBA’s studio band.
Dizzyingly edited from Hallström’s 50 hours of footage, unusually, no out-takes or DVD extras would ever surface. Concert coverage is spliced throughout with the (deliberately) thin fiction of hapless DJ Ashley Wallace, assigned to interview the band and despite frequent near misses, unable – until the last minute – to do so (a plot device apparently kept from the group to add authenticity).
After a surreal dream sequence in which the girls sing The Name Of The Game, he finally gets to meet and talk with them all in an elevator. Traversing Sydney, Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne, Ashley interviews members of the public on the appeal of ABBA. A surprising number of under-12s are fans of their music and perhaps sum it up best as “Special” and “Happy”.
Huge crowds had come to watch the band perform, while cheering fans lined their entire 19km airport route to Melbourne. ABBA-mania in full swing.
Björn Ulvaeus later admitted to some misgivings about ABBA: The Movie. “…Quite honestly, I don’t think that films with pop stars work very well. Of course, The Beatles are an exception and Tommy was a big hit – but there have been lots of other pop films that have sunk without trace… Seeing the film came as a bit of a shock. It’s hard to recognise yourself up there on a giant screen in Panavision. But then we’ve had many moments when it has been hard to accept the things that have been happening to us.”
Nevertheless, on departing Down Under, the message was positive: “We had such a good time,” the foursome agree. As DJ Ashley broadcasts his hard-won interview, in the background plays ABBA’s timeless concert closer, Thank You For The Music. More than 40 years on, the sentiment is still shared by the band’s global fanbase.