Running into the air

Thomas Robsahm on centring the music in A-ha The Movie

by Jennie Kermode

A-Ha The Movie
A-Ha The Movie

With so many documentaries competing for critics’ attention every year, and with awards attention often going first and foremost to those which deal with heart-rending subjects, it’s difficult for music documentaries to make much noise. So when there’s as much positive word of mouth about one as A-ha The Movie, one sits up and listens. I caught this film at the Glasgow Film Festival earlier this year and was pleased to get the chance to talk to director Thomas Robsahm about it last week, as it’s now getting a well-deserved big screen release.

When he was 18, he was in a band himself, he tells me. “And some friends of mine had gone to London, like they always did, to buy records and see bands, and so on, and they had heard about these Norwegians who had gone over to try to make it. At that time so many Norwegian musicians had said that they were going to do that, that they had international ambitions and so on. Nothing ever happened. It was ridiculous to have people over in London thinking that they were going to make it there. They even played some of the music to my friends and they thought it was terrible.

“So when a-ha were on television for the first time, which we can see in the film, I wasn't totally convinced. But at the same time, I kind of hoped that it will happen because Norway has nothing. We have no international pop stars, we have no international football players, we have nothing. We were the country with zero points in the Eurovision Song Contest. That's what we were most famous for. So even though I didn't love the music, I kind of hoped that they would make it. But when I I heard The Sun Always Shines On TV, that was something so totally different from anything I'd ever heard, so much better than anything Norwegian, it really sounded like they could make it. And then the new version of Take On Me was also more convincing. The album came out before the single hit the Billboard charts. So when I heard, you know, Hunting High And Low the song, and also most of that album, also Living A Boy’s Adventure Tale, it was so totally on another level than we've been used to before, so then I started being more convinced, and when the second album came out, I bought it on the first day. So I really became a fan in 1985 or 1986, and I have been a big fan since.”

Following Morten Harket, Pål Waaktaar and Magne Furuholmen over a number of years, the film also looks back at their childhoods, the origins of the band and many more years of creative sparring, separations and reunions, side projects and additional artistic ventures. It’s a vast scope for a single documentary. What persuaded Thomas to take it on?

“What I wanted in the beginning, without asking them, is, was to get into the studio with them and to be there as a fly on the wall during the process of a new a-ha album. I didn't realise they were still just making their albums separately. So it was kind of naïve, maybe, to think that they would go in the studio together. But that's what Morten thinks is the best thing. And even Pål, I guess, finds it more difficult to record in that way, but not because he doesn't want to, but because, I think, he feels he’s been disappointed so many times. So had they done that, even just for the film, then the project might have been a little bit simpler in a way. I would still tell the story of a-ha at the same time, I would still use a lot of the archives, but we would maybe be less on the road with them, it would be a process that would have been shorter. That's still the project I would have liked to make and I still hope that might happen someday.

“I also know from previous projects that documentaries can often take a long, long time. It depends on different things. It depends of course on the subject matter When you get good material, but also the financial processes sometimes take a lot a lot of time. So you start filming with some money, then you can have a bit more with some more money, and you're still in the financing process. And that can go on for years, not that I’ve experienced that on many films. So most of the time documentary projects just take a lot of time. I'm quite used to that.”

Something that struck me very early on about the film was how different the three band members are from the way that their personalities were marketed in the UK at the height of their popularity. Obviously they never saw themselves as a boy band – they were unlucky falling into that trap – but Pål has a much stronger personality than ever came across in the media here and Morten, in a lot of ways seemed to be the quiet one and the peacemaker. How did Thomas manage to connect with each of them?

“Well, first of all, I wasn't sure if it was possible to get all three of them involved in the film,” he says. “The manager was pessimistic and didn't think it was going to happen. But of course, they they would like their legacy to be known. They're such a big band – why shouldn’t they have their documentary like everybody else? And when someone is willing to do that, then having done some things in the past that they might have noticed, I guess...because they all said ‘Yes’ quite easily. And they were all very available separately. The problem is to get them together to do something together. They each want to tell their version of the a-ha story, to control the narrative.

“I knew them through reading books about them, seeing a lot of interviews, kind of following the band, but I'd also met all three of them separately in different occasions, but not knowing them. I knew Mags a little bit - he was in a way, my way in – but Morten, actually, it's hard to get to speak, but if you start talking to him, he speaks a lot. Pål is the more quiet one but is also, as you say, a much stronger personality than you might think from seeing them on television in normal interviews. Mags is maybe the one that's most similar to the image you have already, but is also the most delicate, fragile one in many ways. And maybe the one that is silly, most easily.

“When they started they were very much together, especially Pål and Mags – they even went over [to London] alone. So when the breakthrough happened, you know, even though they have a singer, and they know that the singer almost always gets most of the attention, I guess they weren't prepared at all for what was happening with how the band was perceived. And I guess for Mags it was especially weird to realise that that everybody was saying how great the voice of Morten was, how great the looks of Morten was, and how great a songwriter Pål was. And there was kind of nothing left for Mags except being the funny one. And so for him, it's been really important to know to focus on the fact that he has written some of a-ha’s some great songs, either alone, or at least with Pål, and in some cases being the main person behind the song, but everybody just believes Pål wrote everything.”

He points out that in the film, Mags also makes it clear that he believes he made significant contributions to some songs on which he has never been credited at all. We agree that it’s a shame that these multi-talented people have not been more generous with each other.

And it's interesting seeing the footage from their early years in London which, again, reveals a very different side to them. Where did alll that archive footage and those photographs come from?

“It's a funny story,” says Thomas, “because it’s a little bit how the whole film was made. After having filmed them for three years or something, I starting to go into the editing process. I started realising that even though I shot some material on my own, because I knew there would be material lacking – I shot the sequences where I use the Take On Me animation to tell some of the early stories – I was afraid that I would have to use the same skills ten times, because there was not much material. But then I asked Mags, because I knew that he had a big archive of lots of stuff, you know, the magazine, the album covers, lots of photos and things, and I wanted to have a look. And then he said, ‘Yeah, you can have a look whenever you want. But you know, I also bought a camera back then I have some VHS. Are you interested in that?’

“’What? Are you telling me this now?’” he recalls himself saying, and laughs. “Because that’s gold dust. And then he gave us, like, 90 hours of material. And even though there was less that was actually of a-ha, because he had also shot private stuff, including his own wedding, which we also used. there were also recordings of them in the studio while they were recording songs, and so on. And I also got some material from other band members. So I was very lucky to get some material that's not already on YouTube where, of course, I've seen everything ten times at least. I was really, really happy to find so much material that was ours exclusively for the film.”

And the other thing that I really liked about the film is that it doesn’t waste time on who drank too much or who was sleeping with who, but it really is about the music and the process of creation.

“Mostly, for me, I feel that a music documentary should be about the music.” He smiles, acknowledging that many are not. “I mean, it should be about everything, but I especially dislike when you make a documentary about Whitney Houston, and it's only about the scandals and nothing about her musical talent. I was really disappointed because that director has made some great films before. but even when he made Kurt And Courtney, about Kurt Cobain, that was also just about the conflicts. You know, sometimes you can do that, because that might be the point of the whole film, but with the music documentaries, I really want to connect to the music and I don't mind being a little bit nerdy about it.

“We are music nerds and we want to get into the music, and people that are not music nerds will probably not watch that documentary anyway. But of course when you can combine telling about the music and at the same time telling something that hasn't told before, and make it interesting also for people who are not into the music in the first place, that's the best films, and that's fantastic, like the Metallica film or other films that in some ways managed to combine those two elements. But you know, if you don't want to get up and listen to the music or the bands or the artists after seeing the film, then I think it’s a little bit of a waste, because it's a music documentary.”

Coming up: Thomas Robsahm on a-ha’s own musical influences, exploring the band members’ side projects and capturing the magic on stage.

A-ha The Movie is in cinemas now.

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