Wednesday 16 March 2022

A-HA: THE MOVIE - Glasgow Film Festival review

Following Norwegian pop-stars A-Ha as they prepare for their latest tour, this new documentary reveals a wealth of information about the band's history, their solo projects, and how they crafted their most widely known contribution to pop, their 1985 classic hit, Take On Me.

Having sold in excess of 50 million albums over the last 40 years, A-Ha are still touring to this day. In preparation for their most recent stretch of shows and a coveted appearance on MTV's Unplugged, the band allowed cameras to follow their rehearsal progress, including personal interviews that reveal what has kept Norway's biggest musical export going for so long.

In a creative decision that was inevitable, the filmmakers employ the pencil sketch animation style of Steve Barron's classic music video for Take On Me, which - although impressively rendered - mercifully only lasts the duration of the introductory flashbacks that reveal the band members' childhoods. Around the first 15 minutes of the film. It's fitting that the iconic visual motif is used to this extent, as the whole film could be about the band's desire to escape from the long shadow their biggest hit has cast over them. They may have been accused of being 'one hit wonders' over the years, but racked up a number of hits (including the Bond theme for The Living Daylights). Even so, they would freely admit that their career has been defined by their signature song.

The pop band biopic has seen some interesting new twists in recent years, perhaps most notably Bros's After The Screaming Stops which leaned heavily on the ridiculous Anvil-like aspects of pop stardom, painting the brothers Goss to be somewhat disconnected from reality. Here directors Thomas Robsahm and Aslaug Holm deliver a much more grounded portrait of their subjects, largely thanks to the influence of Magne and Pål, the two key songwriters of the group. We get to learn about the band's humble origins, from schoolboy musical experimentation between Magne and Pål, to the bizarre coincidence that one of the witnesses to Magne's father's plane crash death was his future bandmate, Morten, years before they met. Propelled by a strange sense of destiny that the trio were going to perform together, they reminisce how as cocksure teenagers they manifested "we're going to be international popstars... Norway's too small for us" before heading off to London in 1981 in search of fame, fortune and that elusive chart-topper.

If you know anything about A-Ha, other than their early success with the MTV hit Take On Me and their Bond theme for The Living Daylights, it's probably focused on frontman Morten Harket, and the legions of adoring fans he has maintained since the 80s. A striking, elfish looking man who has the level of sex appeal you'd hope a lead singer to have, this meant that his two bandmates were pushed out of frame somewhat. Thankfully for the band's harmony, this film makes clear that Magne and Pål neither courted this kind of attention or begrudge Morten for having it. Throughout the film there's a number of comic moments where they see the funny side of being an after thought when greeted by hoteliers and fans across the world who want to fawn all over Morten, who's perfected a polite smile for the camera when he's clearly weary of the attention he receives.

What's surprising about this documentary is that it avoids the temptation to focus its attention on frontman Morten (who, frankly, is the least interesting of the three), giving the same weight to Magne and Pål's lives and projects away from the band. There's equal narration from all three men, and a revealing look at their surprising musical and artistic depths that would be unknown to all but the most hardcore of fans. There's also discontent within the band always threatening to bubble up to the surface, namely the age old issue with songwriting credits and the share of the royalties. It's here the documentary has the most drama, with the highlight being the deep dive into the production of Take On Me in the early-to-mid 80s. Based on a keyboard riff Magne wrote at 14 years old but largely credited to Pål, it went through numerous guises (different versions were released at least twice in various territories) before emerging as the reworked synth-pop classic we all know and love.

Still, despite the usual dramas you'd expect to find in a band who've been together for 40 years, A-Ha: The Movie doesn't offer much in a way of turmoil. There's a hint that producing a new record might bring old resentments to the front, but they're clearly a tight-knit unit that still pack stadiums on tours, and have been an acknowledged influence on bands like Coldplay. A-Ha: The Movie is a fan-pleasing portrait of the band, but for newcomers or casual observers will offer a surprising level of detail about their long career too.



A-Ha: The Movie screened as part of this year's Glasgow Film Festival. More information about the festival can be found here.

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