Glasgow Film Festival 2022 Review: a-ha The Movie

Norwegian pop heroes a-ha are the subject of Thomas Robsahm and Aslaug Holm’s documentary chronicling the band’s rise to global stardom and the ups and downs of their forty year career. a-ha The Movie features unseen footage of Magne Furuholmen, Morten Harket and Pål Waaktaar-Savoy, allowing directors Robsahm and Holm to give an insightful and unrestricted glimpse into both the magic and tensions behind the hits.

a-ha The Movie lifts the lid on the inner workings and rich musical and personal history of the band behind hits including Take On Me, The Sun Always Shines on TV and The Living Daylights. Exploring their journey from Norway to global musical stardom, Robsahm and Holm mix archive footage with more up-to-date interviews and interactions with the band to explore the little known complexities of a-ha’s musical legacy.

Opening with the band’s current discussions about recording new music – a stoic Magne Furuholmen resists due to the tension and conflicts that the studio experience brings – we are given a sense of the not quite rosy dynamics within the band. Morten Harket and Pål Waaktaar-Savoy seem slightly more optimistic and open to the prospect and the allure of a-ha – seen by the band’s semi-regular releasing pattern (even dropping album Cast in Steel in 2015 after their apparent retirement as a band). Robsahm and Holm disperse these contemporary interviews amidst a narrative that then goes on to chronicle a-ha’s rise to pop stardom.

Littered with hand drawn animations in the vein of the award winning video for a-ha’s Take On Me, the documentary begins to chronicle the early musical moves of the band and the tragic serendipity that lead to Morten and Magne connecting. Interestingly we hear about the group immersing themselves in the eighties British pop scene taking in acts such as Soft Cell, followed by a signing to Warner Brothers Records in 1983. The trappings of recording contracts are explored in the band’s frustration to quickly progress under the label.

a-ha The Movie later delves into their work with Tony Mansfield and the initial lack of success that Take On Me found when released in 1984 (despite hitting the #1 spot in Norway) – the perseverance shown by the band toward the track and the huge success of its reworking under producer John Ratcliff, sees the documentary travel down the route of exploring the subsequent fame of the band brought on by the iconic eighties anthem.

The image of a-ha comes under the microscope of the 21st Century perspective, with the Norwegian trio now highly critical of many of their eighties music videos and the image of a teen pop band that was crafted through media opportunities. The band share their battle between the mature synthpop sounds that they prided themselves on, with the kitsch teeny image that was presented to listeners – yet they acknowledge that they still went along with it. There are some light musings on the bandmember’s perceptions of each other, providing some well-placed levity – such as the image of lead singer Morten as the over the top poser with a great voice; yet these are balanced out by equally tense scenes such as the band’s frustrations in the studio when recording a MTV Unplugged piece in 2006.

Further challenges beneath the veneer of pop perfection are explored in Pål’s anxieties within the group – the introverted songwriter and instrumentalist openly shares his struggles with the spotlight, despite a juxtaposing passion for music. Subsequent tensions over the band’s songwriting credits rooted in a bitterness between Magne and Pål over what constitutes a songwriting contribution captures the image of a band that appear to co-exist without a particular personal camaraderie, yet capable of creating a dynamic sound together on stage and in the studio.

Filmmakers Robsahm and Holm delve into the each of the band’s albums and their shifting nature in sound – from the synthy europop of their eighties work to the darker, moodier dynamics of albums such as East of the Sun, West of the Moon. a-ha The Movie does an impressive job at briefly shedding light on the group’s musical output – particularly their often overlooked 00s material such as Foot of the Mountain.

Helping us gain a sense of the individual members, Robsahm and Holm shed light on the respective solo pursuits of each member from Magne’s work in the art field and his art music collective Apparatjik to Pål’s band Savoy. Morten’s successful solo output in the form of album Wild Seed is also explored – as well as the upset the release of this caused with his a-ha colleagues.

Mixing archival footage and contemporary interactions with the band, as well as a strong balance between the music and personal dynamics, a-ha The Movie is a comprehensive and absorbing glimpse into Norway’s most famous musical sons. A timeless acoustic rendition of Take On Me in the film’s closing moments highlight just how special a-ha’s sound is regardless of inner-band conflicts and tension we witness.

a-ha The Movie plays as part of the Glasgow Film Festival. Find out details of screenings here.

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