Saying that the first (and only) theatrical feature film starring Swedish pop supergroup Abba is not as embarrassing as one might expect is a case of damning with faint praise. That’s because Abba, the purveyors of such ubiquitous ’70s earworms as “Dancing Queen” and “Mamma Mia,” were better heard than seen. Sure, fair-haired lead singer Agnetha Folstag was as photogenic as any starlet of the era, but the band’s predilection for spangled jumpsuits and dorky choreography made their filmed appearances almost indefensible, even for the millions of folks who enjoyed listening to the group’s slick songwriting and production. For fans, the Abba era was a happy time filled with catchy melodies. For detractors, Abba’s run atop the pop charts was akin to a reign of terror. Either way, Abba: The Movie serves a useful purpose by capturing the Abba phenomenon at its apex.
One of the first features helmed by fellow Swede and future Miramax golden boy Lasse Hallström, this documentary/fiction hybrid tries to recapture the vibe of Richard Lester’s manic Beatles movies, especially A Hard Day’s Night (1964), by contriving a simple plot that strings together loosely filmed live performances and elaborately mounted production numbers. In this case, the plot involves a stressed-out DJ (Robert Hughes) chasing the band across Australia in pursuit of an exclusive radio interview before the band’s down-under tour ends. The narrative scenes in Abba: The Movie are forgettable, with the DJ evincing stupidity in his efforts to complete a simple task, although Hallstrom employs myriad cinematic tricks—from cross-cutting to split-screens—to enliven this material.
The quality of the musical interludes is erratic. As in the narrative scenes, Hallström tries a little bit of everything to compensate for the lack of substance. Historically speaking, the most useful musical scenes are the simplest ones, capturing Abba’s family-friendly stage show at the peak of the band’s popularity. Given their ability to generate dancefloor hits, it’s interesting to note that virtually the only concessions to sexualized disco culture that Abba makes are moments when Folstag boogies with her back to the audience, displaying the posterior that’s a topic of considerable discussion during the film. Concurrently, Hallstrom seems to take a gentle poke at the band’s sanitized image by including man-on-the-street remarks about Abba being “clean” and “tidy.” That said, Hallstrom loses control of the film whenever he tries to get arty. An over-the-top sequence set to Abba’s pulsing anthem “Eagle” is drenched with optical effects, wind machines, and general visual excess, as is the sequence representing the DJ’s dream of bonding with Abba. (The latter sequence badly misuses one of Abba’s most mature songs, “The Name of the Game.”)
Suffice to say, viewers learn nothing about the band members beyond a few points of widely reported trivia—the goal of this officially sanctioned movie was to help sell Abba, the product, not to help reveal Abba, the people. At least the band didn’t skimp on production values, since the movie has a robust look thanks to glossy anamorphic-widescreen photography. Naturally, one’s ability to trudge through all of Abba: The Movie depends upon one’s tolerance for the group’s happy-shiny tunes. A few of their winners get performed (notably “Dancing Queen,” which is positioned as the climax of the film) but way too much screen time gets burned up on tiresome dreck like “Tiger” and “When I Kissed the Teacher.
Abba: The Movie: FUNKY