For those of you too young to remember (or old enough to want to forget), there was a time in the mid- to late-1970s when the biggest group in the world was not the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, or KISS. In fact, it wasn't even some dirty, rebellious rock group, but a band of four utterly wholesome, polyester-clad Swedes named Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny, and Anni-Frid. These two then-happily married couples sang sickly sweet if meticulously-crafted pop tunes about dancing queens and soldiers named Fernando. The boys wrote the songs, which shrewdly mined everything from classic European schlager music to Beethoven to Bee Gees-lite disco kitsch, while the girls brought luminous multi-octave harmonies wrapped up in sanitized sexiness. Together, they created one of the most immediately identifiable pop packages in the history of modern music, and though the critics may have hated it, by the end of the decade the juggernaut known as ABBA had sold over 200 million albums worldwide.
Today, Sweden's one-time biggest cultural export (they even topped Volvo, for chrissakes!) remains an institution. Though the group never officially disbanded (they simply stopped recording in 1982 and, to their eternal credit, have refused to do the reunion circuit), the beat goes on thanks to numerous compilation albums, most notably the mega-selling "ABBA Gold," plus appearances on tons of film soundtracks, a live touring cover band (dubbed Bjorn Again) that routinely sells out arenas worldwide and -- most sickeningly -- the Broadway sensation turned soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture 'Mamma Mia!' If the sight of ABBA, in one of their many now-classic music video camp-fests, warbling forlornly about "knowing me, knowing you" on some mountaintop in Sweden while wearing giant fur coats makes their unstoppable success now utterly preposterous (if not incomprehensible), there's really nothing you or anyone else can do about it. ABBA is an essential part of music history, just like the Beatles... so deal with it.
Of course, like all pop culture phenomenons, even if you hate ABBA there is legitimate value in dissecting their meteoric rise to superstardom. Which is why a half-baked rockumentary like 'ABBA: The Movie' remains compulsively watchable, even if it fails in most of its narrative aims. Part concert movie, part travelogue of ABBA being mobbed by fans, and part fictionalized comedic yarn about some radio DJ out to score an interview with the fabled pop group, 'ABBA: The Movie' is a jumbled mess, but the moments capturing the hysteria that greeted the band at the height of its fame are fascinating.
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom (yes, that Oscar-nominated Lasse Hallstrom of 'The Cider House Rules' and 'Chocolat'), 'ABBA: The Movie' was shot during the band's now-famous visit to Australia in 1977, when the group's grip over the nation was so intense it literally bordered on pandemonium. Hallstrom was granted "all access" to the band's jaunt Down Under (though the "grueling" tour schedule only lasted, like, a week and a half), and the footage he captured, displaying the way the group's hundreds of thousands of (mostly prepubescent) fans behaved is a staggering spectacle. Screaming, crying, throwing themselves at limos or practically trampling each other to claw their way over a near-collapsing fence to touch their idols, it's herd mentality at its most jaw-dropping. In fact, charges of Swedish mind control no longer seem out of line when Hallstrom takes his cameras to various Australian grade schools, and we meet kids being taught all about ABBA ("One of us! One of us!" you can almost hear them chanting), or when he interviews parents who discuss the band's music and appeal as if they were being market-tested a brand of toothpaste.
Unfortunately, this fan frenzy material is only a portion of 'ABBA: The Movie,' and the film is far more wobbly when Hallstrom attempts to graft a "story" into the footage. Played by Australian personality Robert Hughes, "Ashley Wallace" is a rock DJ assigned to nab the impossible assignment -- an interview with ABBA. Designed as a "framing device," it's an abysmal attempt at comedic relief, with the admittedly likeable Hughes stumbling around backstage and sticking his microphone in the faces of anyone who'll listen, or most painfully, falling into a "dream interlude" where he imagines himself frolicking with the happy ABBA to the strains of "The Name of the Game." It's all pretty bad.
You may have noticed that I haven't mentioned the music in 'ABBA: The Movie' at all. That's because, if you've read this far already, you've certainly long ago made up your mind about the group. I will say that I always thought ABBA was a terrific singles band, but a lousy albums act. For every class-A single like "Dancing Queen," "Knowing Me, Knowing You" or my fave, "SOS," there is a dreadful turkey sandwiched in-between like "I Am the Tiger" or "Dum Dum Diddle." This makes the live cuts featured in 'ABBA: The Movie' a definite mixed bag, as the 1977 tour was still only about midway in the band's lifecycle and they hadn't yet matured into the more sophisticated pop group they would later become with literate LPs like "Super Trouper" and the vastly underrated "The Visitors." There are still plenty of big hits to enjoy in 'ABBA: The Movie,' but there's alot of filler as well.
None of this matters, of course, if you are an ABBA fan. However silly they may seem, the band does possess a charm as individuals (broken English and all), which is ultimately the most compelling reason to see 'ABBA: The Movie.' Hallstrom also makes fine use of the 2.35:1 Panavision dimensions and employs some restrained editing tricks (particularly the split-screen footage in the concert sequences) that give a nice wide-screen splendor to the proceedings which far exceed most rock concert movies of the era. 'ABBA: The Movie' is certainly not a good film, but it has some fun parts (particularly if you're skilled with the fast-forward button) and as a document of the height of ABBA-mania, it's oddly riveting.
'ABBA: The Movie' was shot in 2.35:1 Panavision (mislabeled 1.85:1 on the packaging), and its visual largesse is the film's greatest cinematic attribute. There is a classy, polished look to both the documentary and the narrative elements that is far better than you'd expect for something like this.
Spread across a BD-50 dual-layer disc, this is a very nice 1080i/VC-1 encode. Though not absolutely pristine, I was impressed with how nicely restored the source has been. There are seldom dropouts and blemishes (only a few of the composite shots suffer from age-related wear and dirt), and black levels are very strong. The use of 35mm really benefits 'ABBA: The Movie,' giving it a cinematic, film-like look with nice contrast and generally vibrant colors. Detail rarely breaks down, so although it's not overwhelmingly three-dimensional, I was surprised at what a nice high-def image this is. Throw in a clean, artifact-free encode (I only noticed a bit of banding during some long dissolves/fades) and 'ABBA: The Movie' earns high marks.
Universal Music offers three audio options for 'ABBA: The Movie,' PCM 5.1 Surround and PCM 2.0 Stereo (both 48kHz/16-bit), plus Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (192kbps). It's a very listenable and often quite dynamic audio remaster, if one that doesn't always quite surmount the limitations of its source.
Bjorn and Benny were often regarded as perfectionists when it came to their studio recordings, and even as a live band they're a tight, polished act (which is actually quite surprising, considering the fact that they toured so infrequently). For a 1977 concert film, 'ABBA: The Movie' is very well recorded, with an expansive six-track mix that is certainly superior to most rock movies of the era. Stereo separation is obvious, low bass fairly punchy, and the surrounds highlight the incessant screaming of the frenzied crowd (some may find the "white noise source" a bit too much, actually, though I personally like the added intensity it adds to a live presentation).
Unfortunately, there are still obvious audio concessions of the era. High-end in particular can sound brittle and, during a few of the peak concert moments, break out into distortion. I wouldn't say the sound is shrill, but at a loud volume it can be grating. The pre-recorded songs (used largely during the fantasy sequences) are much more pleasing, particularly the vague southern soft rock of "Eagle" (not a genre ABBA played with much in their career). Dialogue sounds good, though the Swedes' thick accents did suffer and I frequently resorted to the subtitles to make out some of Agnetha's more head-scratching utterances (just what is this woman talking about half the time, anyway?) Despite these faults, however, 'ABBA: The Movie' sounds pretty fine for a 1977 concert flick.
Universal has not produced anything new for the Stateside Blu-ray release of 'ABBA: The Movie' (the film previously hit both Blu-ray and HD DVD overseas last year), so nothing here will be at all unfamiliar to fans. All the video material is 480i and formatted for 16:9 screens, with the same subtitle options as the main feature.
If you hate ABBA and everything their kitschy, contrived music stands for, you will undoubtedly hate their movie. But if, like me, you can appreciate some of the classic pop gems they created as well as the fascinating impact of their global success, 'ABBA: The Movie' is worth checking out. This is a very fine Blu-ray, too, with strong video and audio and a couple of entertaining supplements. This is a must-have for ABBA fans, and a great piece of kitsch for the rest of us.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.