Welcome back to our queer film retrospective, “A Gay Old Time.” In this week’s column, we revisit 1977’s ABBA: The Movie, the iconic band’s lesser known “mockumentary” tour movie.
For almost fifty years now, Swedish pop supergroup ABBA have remained a constant presence in popular culture.
From their millions of singles sold during the ’70s and ’80s, to their ’90s renaissance spurred on by their greatest hits album, to their introduction to new generations with a smash hit Broadway musical and two movie adaptations—not to mention a long-awaited new album and a live show that sells out every night—it seems like they’ve always been here.
However, the majority of their recent success is based purely on nostalgia: their career resurgence with ABBA Gold brought people back to the songs they loved growing up. Mamma Mia! (both the show and the movies) hinged on the audience’s familiarity with the material, and ABBA Voyage invites people to experience the group in its heyday in a way that time doesn’t allow.
For the most part, we’ve only been able to experience ABBA in the past tense, and it’s hard to envision how it was to live through the phenomenon as it happened—unless you lived through it. That’s where ABBA: The Movie comes in.
Few people, even some of its most ardent fans, know about this film. It’s a strange little artifact, not quite a narrative movie, or a music documentary, or a concert film; it’s an amalgamation of all these genres. Beyond putting the members of the group in a wacky scripted plot (something like what The Beatles did years before), showing a straight-forward recording of a concert, or an in-depth behind-the-scenes look at the band, the movie gives audiences a rare front seat view to what it was like to be an ABBA fan in 1977.
ABBA: The Movie follows an Australian country radio DJ, Ashley Wallace (Robert Hughes), assigned by his boss to get an exclusive interview with ABBA, who is currently touring the country. Ashley then chases the group from Sydney to Perth to Adelaide to Melbourne, trying—and miserably failing—to get alone time with them in a series of slapstick encounters and misunderstandings.
The plot is as bare as a plot can be, and seems to be a mere excuse to showcase not only footage of the band’s 1977 Australian tour, but also the fervent love of their fans and the commotion that their presence caused with the Australian people.
Front Row Seat To ABBA-Mania
As Ashley moves from city to city, and interviews fans about their love for the band, we are able to experience ABBA-mania in a way that we aren’t able to fully grasp forty years after the fact. It’s mentioned several times that their level of success hadn’t been seen since The Beatles, and it’s easy to see why. Thousands of people crowding outside their hotel room, stampedes in stadiums rushing to get front seats, and endless merchandise (from socks to zines to pillows to caps) being bought and passed over.
The movie truly excels in the one element of ABBA’s omnipresence in culture that hasn’t been able to be carried over to today: the feeling of experiencing them live and in person, releasing new music, buying their merch, and being a fan with hundreds of thousands of people.
ABBA: Untucked… ish
It also offers a rare close look at seeing them perform live; the way they move on stage together, the way Benny plays the piano with exhilarating joy, how Bjorn walks out to thousands of fans in thundering rain, or Agnetha and Anni-Frid warming up their vocals backstage.
It’s not an intimate look at the band whatsoever (who famously were in romantic relationships with each other). There are no candid talking heads, or emotional breakdowns, or visible tension between the members. It can even be said that they play a supporting role in their own movie. But it does offer a rare and delightful opportunity to see them on stage together at the height of their fame.
And who doesn’t want to see them perform their hits at a time when they weren’t classics yet? “S.O.S,” “Mamma Mia,” “Waterloo,” “Fernando,” “Dancing Queen”… they do them all! Well, the hits that were released up until that point.
The movie came out in 1977 and follows the promotional tour for their album ABBA: The Album (hence the title of the film). They would still release two more albums before their initial separation, so a few more classics were yet to come (“One Of Us,” “Super Trouper,” or “The Winner Takes It All”). But this also allowed for more obscure favorites to get a moment in the spotlight; it’s a pleasure to see songs like “Tiger,” “When I Kissed the Teacher,” and “I’m a Marionette” performed.
We all love the greatest hits, but these lesser-known ABBA tracks deserve another listen.
Drop The Visuals!
However, the most striking aspect of the movie is perhaps how aesthetically and cinematically daring is at points. The film was directed by Lasse Hallström, who was behind practically every music video of the band, and would go on to be an Oscar-nominated director of films like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, The Cider House Rules, and Chocolat.
Hallström seems to have taken this docu-fiction-concert movie as an opportunity to flex his creative muscles: surreal dream sequences of Ashley seducing the band members over “The Name Of The Game,” abstract imagery of flying objects with “Eagle,” and experiments with speed, reverberation, and aspect ratio. The film is at points just a collection of music videos that vary in style but are still, somehow, linked together.
Thank You For The Music
ABBA: The Movie is everything and nothing at the same time. It doesn’t offer the intimacy or in-depth look at a band that other music documentaries might, or a necessarily compelling narrative to follow. But it is a great depiction of the exact time and place that ABBA thrived at.
Above everything, it is a love letter to their fans, the people that loved and followed them then, and those that do now. Because, after all, that seems to be the one thing that has remained consistent all these years.
ABBA: The Movie is currently available for digital purchase via Amazon. And, for those in the U.K., select cinemas will be hosting exclusive ABBA: The Movie “Fan Event” screenings on September 17 and 19, which you can learn more about here.
For nearly five decades, we’ve been rushing to the dance floor the moment we hear the opening synths of an ABBA hit.