They broke up in 1982, after a decade of existence and a staggering eight-year run of hits, and have not recorded new material in over 35 years – but if you’ve been to the movies in the last quarter of a century, ABBA has never really gone away. The Swedish quartet’s soundtrack needle-drops in films like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel’s Wedding helped kick off a revival that’s still going strong; whole generations of fans have discovered Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Agnetha Fältskog via their chart-topping hits gracing big-screen comedies and tearjerkers. And then there was Mamma Mia!, the seemingly deathless jukebox musical that premiered in London in 1999, started spreading across the world in touring productions and inspired a 2008 film of the same name. A sequel was inevitable – hence Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, another collection of celebrity singalongs of “Waterloo” and “Dancing Queen” against gorgeous Mediterranean skies. Even the announcement that a new song is on the way comes attached to something called an “avatar tour project,” a VR experience designed to let fans experience the band while the foursome stay far away from the screaming crowds. We may once again be reaching a Peak ABBA moment.
But long before Broadway audiences turned the band’s back catalog into group kitsch-karaoke and Cher crooned “Fernando,” there was ABBA: The Movie, a 1977 attempt to give the Swedish pop stars their own Hard Day’s Night. Following an Australian country and western DJ named Ashley (Robert Hughes) as he tries in vain to interview the group while on tour, it’s the flimsiest possible narrative on which to hang a mix of concert footage, music videos, “candid” backstage footage (filmed months later at a Stockholm hotel) and man-on-the-street interviews. But it also captures the feel of a country in the grip of ABBA-mania, from nonstop radio airplay to television show appearances, press conferences to pillowcases to beer mugs. It’s an act of brand extension, sure, but it’s a lot more fun than the obligatory piece of product its title suggests. (It was released in conjunction with ABBA: The Album.) It’s also the next best thing to being there for those who missed them the first time around.
Though the preceding years had seen the Eurovision Song Contest winners become international stars, this was clearly the right time and place to capture the group at peak popularity; the previous year, an Australian TV special had drawn more viewers than the moon landing. And while the film opens with sleepy shots of the down-under countryside, complete with sleeping kangaroos, it mostly depicts the nation as a place where the populace spends most of its time thinking about ABBA – and those who don’t soon will. Ashley begins the film as an skeptic, told by his boss to get the scoop on “the hottest property on the pop scene.” He ends it as a man who literally dreams about the group.
And why shouldn’t he? Though he encounters the occasional outlier who’s just not that into the group, Ashley mostly meets fans ranging in age from grade schoolers to geriatrics surprised to find themselves getting into such modern music. Words like “clean” and “tidy” keep coming up, with one older fan noting “some of the groups today look positively ugly on stage.” It’s even the go-to word for a bearded critic brought in to explain the band’s popularity: “Their image is very clean and it does provide a large contrast to a great number of popular groups. They don’t have anything to do with chains and violence. Their music and their performance has to do with having a good time.”
ABBA does seem to be having a good time – up to a point. Frequently clad in capes and dressed mostly in white, they’re dancing around the stage while working through past and future hits, including a memorable Sydney appearance in the pouring rain. If touring were only about performing and signing the occasional autograph for fans decked out in your merch, being in the band looks look like it would be a dream job.
But ABBA: The Movie also shows the downside of being in the eye of the ABBAcane. Press conferences devolve into inanities like, “Are you worried that you make money faster than you can spend it?” (Andersson: “It’s a lot of money coming in, but there’s a lot of tax to pay if you’re a Swedish citizen, which is fair.”) Worst of all, the press seems fixated on Fältskog’s body, an obsession that threatens to become like a sub-plot. “I read somewhere,” a Sydney journalist coyly asks, “where you are the proud owner of an award which declares you as the lady with the sexiest bottom in Europe.” Later, Fältskog spies a tabloid’s article on her posterior and wonders, “Don’t they have bottoms in Australia?”
Then there are the other hints that not everything is all perfectly styled hair and dazzling toothpaste-ad smiles in the world of ABBA. The film is an early effort of Swedish director Lasse Hallström, still a few years out from his breakthrough 1983 film My Life As a Dog but already displaying a gift for subtlety. This wasn’t his first collaboration with the group: He’d directed all of their early music videos and the distinctive clips helped them find a wider audience via TV airings in the pre-MTV Seventies. They also occasionally doubled as mini-dramas in which the members played themselves as romantic pairs – which, to be fair, they were in real life. Fältskog and Ulvaeus married in 1971; though they wouldn’t tie the know officially until 1978, Andersson and Lyngstad had been a couple since before the group began.
By the time the band split, both marriages had ended. It’s hard to read too much into the two video interludes here: a “Name of the Game” clip in which Ashley becomes, at last, the center of the band’s attention; and the eye-catching “Eagle,” in which Lyngstad and Fältskog sing yearningly against kaleidoscope images of an ascending elevator. The music, on the other hand, was growing increasingly forlorn. ABBA always had a knack for break-up songs, but the 1977 tour introduced a new element of discontent in the form of “The Girl With the Golden Hair,” a song suite about a young woman’s search for stardom that includes the bitter “I’m a Marionette.” And from ABBA: The Album on, heartbreak and the loneliness of fame would become increasingly central to the stories they told in songs like “Super Trouper” and “The Winner Takes It All.” By the time of the group’s 1981 final album The Visitors, sorrow and alienation seemed to be virtually all the group knew how to sing about.
In that sense, this docu/mocku/rockumentary doubles as a time capsule, a chronicle of the moment before the wave crests. But this Carter-era relic also makes a fine case for why the wave formed in the first place. ABBA looks and sounds great here, like a band worthy of the devotion it inspired, singing radio-friendly, musically intricate and deceptively melancholy songs with the showmanship of born performers. That they became a worldwide phenomenon seems less like a fluke than their destiny. We’ll still get a new recording and that VR experience for this “here we go again” moment – but ABBA: The Movie just drives home what we’re missing by not having the foursome themselves here.