A-ha The Movie

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Frédéric Boyer on Aslaug Holm’s A-ha The Movie: “We have another one that’s just for fun, but super-well done"
"Few music documentaries get as close to the mechanics of interactive creative processes as this, and few enjoy such candid input from their subjects." | Photo: Tribeca Film Festival

A boy who, at the age of three, discovered that he could sing anything he wanted to, that his voice would just soar. Another who made drums out of carboard tubes and performed out on the balcony of his parents’ flat. A third, his neighbour, who loved guitar. Perhaps it was inevitable that they would find each other. They played together in high school. After leaving, Pål Waaktaar (now Pål Waaktaar-Savoy) and Magne Furuholmen moved to London to pursue their dream of becoming rock stars. When it didn’t work out, they persuaded Morten Harket to join them. When it still didn’t work out, they persevered, constantly changing their look and their management and their videos until suddenly, Take On Me was a worldwide hit. The three teenagers realised how far out of their depth they were only when they were number one in the US and there was no looking back.

Thirty-eight years later, it would be impossible, they say, for them to be around each other as much as they were then without killing each other, yet they are still creating new music together and they’re still selling out big venues when they tour. As some of us remember, they were an outstanding live act even in the early days, and very different in that context from the way they were packaged for the teen market. Becoming known as a boy band was a horrioble accident, they reflect. Back then, Pål was supposed to be the shy one, Magne the fun one and Morten the cute one. in fact, Pål was suffering from acute anxiety onstage, but was the driving force in the studio. Magne, pressured into setting his guitar aside to play keyboards, was uninterested in celebrity and very much focused on musical ambition, which often put him at odds with Pål. Morten, bemused by the fuss people made about him, was the voice of the band only in the public sphere, and otherwise took on the role which Spinal Tap’s Derek Smalls described as ‘lukewarm water’ between his bandmates’ ice and fire.

Copy picture

That they managed to keep it going – albeit with some lengthy breaks and a number of solo musical projects and other artistic ventures – is a testament to their mutual recognition of music as work, as well as their recognition of one another’s talents. These are rare qualities in musicians who start out the way they did. Writer/director Thomas Robsahm may make ample use of early album track Living A Boy’s Adventure Tale in this documentary, but he’s well aware of the effort it has taken for them to get this far, and of the significance of their musical legacy. There is talk of the influence of Queen on their early mingling of pop with orchestral themes, and Soft Cell seem to have pulled them in a similar direction. At one point Pål suggests that he might have been happiest in a goth band, if only so that he could appear in silhouette and not feel as exposed on stage.

Time has, of course, brought change. Whilst Pål and Magne have evolved as musicians, Morten has not retained the full vocal range which distinguished him in his youth. In one intriguing scene, he requests changes in an arrangement because he doesn’t want to sound like he’s whining all the way through it, and Magne protests that the song hasn’t changed in 30 years, seemingly missing the fact that Morten has. It’s not all loss, though; he’s matured as a singer and is more intuitively creative in his approach. Earlier footage shows him curiously awkward in the studio, continually making the least likely choices as he works out how to pitch lyrics. It’s all the stranger because, as some viewers will know, he proved to be a pretty good actor in his brief forays into film.

As well as touching briefly on those, this film looks at Pål and Magne’s separate visual arts careers, Magne’s venture into composing film soundtracks and Pål’s work alongside wife Lauren Savoy-Waaktaar in their band Savoy. it addresses the major fallings-out which occurred in a-ha over the years, with some bitter testimony from Magne, who seems to be the one who has struggled most. During one of these scenes, the camera picks out a red baseball cap bearing the legend ‘Make a-ha great again’ abandoned in a corner of the room. Later, there’s some very personal material concerning Magne’s heart problems, and it’s clear that this gave all three musicians a reason to re-evaluate their relationship.

Few music documentaries get as close to the mechanics of interactive creative processes as this, and few enjoy such candid input from their subjects. Though they may or may not connect with the music, it’s really a film which teenagers should be obliged to watch if they’re serious about wanting to make it in the music industry. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that a-ha’s success seems to have been predicated in part on luck – not just that they happened to take off when they did, when they were almost completely out of money and options, but that they never seem to have been seriously exploited. Although they may have been packaged in a way they would later regret, the people working with them generally seem to have had their best interests at heart, and they benefited a lot from talented producers before they learned how to handle that side of it for themselves.

There is also an absence, here, of the usual stories about drink, drugs and disastrous relationships, perhaps because, whereas a lot of bands talk the talk, a-ha seem to have been serious when they said that for them, the music came first. It’s refreshing to see a music documentary presenting a story like this, making it clear that it is possible to do things differently. Furthermore, Robsahm and Holm tell the story with such confidence and thoroughness that it doesn’t need scandal to make it interesting. It’s an intriguing piece of work even if you’ve never had much interest in a-ha; and if you have, it’s a must.

Reviewed on: 05 Mar 2022
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A-ha The Movie packshot
Documentary portrait of the band behind Take On Me.

Director: Thomas Robsahm

Writer: Thomas Robsahm

Year: 2021

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: Germany


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