Directors – Thomas Robsahm, Aslaug Holm – 2021 – Norway, Germany – Cert. 12a – 108m
The rise and career of the enduring, three-piece, Norwegian band a-ha – out in cinemas on Friday, May 20th
Norwegian trio a-ha are arguably best known for two songs. They swept to fame on the strength of their first hit Take On Me, which features extensively in this documentary. They were later asked to do the title for Bond movie The Living Daylights (John Glen, 1987), which gets only a few minutes screen time somewhere in the middle here, so I’ll get that out of the way first. The band write their own material and found themselves having to work with legendary Bond composer John Barry as their producer on this gig who, as they saw it, was used to having musical input and getting his own way. They talk about recording the song in such a way as to get round him.
Perhaps what this best illustrates is that musicians (artists, composers, bands) often work and operate within their own sealed worlds and if they have to work with rivals, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In this instance, it doesn’t sound a good experience for either party. The song is covered briefly, with footage from the music video and the band playing the song live to an enthusiastic concert crowd, and that’s it. If you come to this documentary to find out more about this song, you’re going to be disappointed.
Magne Furuholmen, the keyboard player who originally started out as one of two guitarists, wrote Take On Me in his mid-teens. He knew it was something special and kept reworking it. Singer Morten Harket, who later joined the two original members Pål Waaktaar (guitar) and the aforementioned Magne, was convinced this song could be a hit. After relocating from the Norwegian capital Oslo of their childhood they hawked themselves around record companies in the UK capital London in the early eighties, where manager John Radcliffe could see that they were very different from the punk thing that was going on at the time. They eventually landed a contract with Warner Bros. Music.
The band tried out the song lots of different ways with producer Tony Mansfield, but he just couldn’t quite get it to work. Producer Alan Tarney went back to their original demo of the song and attempted to recreate its qualities, which took him a single day. They fortuitously got this recording in to the hands of Jeff Ayeroff, newly arrived at Warners. Ayeroff knew film director Steve Barron and put him together with a-ha for what would turn out to be a breakthrough video featuring the band (mainly Harket) both in live action and rotoscoped animation, sometimes combining both in one shot.
In the era of MTV, the resultant, unique, innovative and groundbreaking video received much airplay and exposed the song, which, sure enough, became a huge hit. How far their success was due to the video in those heavily music video-oriented times, we shall never know; the current film heavily plays this element down as though it was no more than a minor factor, something I, for one, find hard to believe.
The documentary has an animation crew producing footage in the illustrative style of the Take On Me video which is scattered throughout, for instance in an establishing shot of the pleasant-looking Oslo housing estate of their childhood. By accident or design, this reinforces the unspoken idea that Take On Me’s success owes much to Barron’s video, and you almost wish the production could have deployed a variety of animation styles rather than just this one, because after a while you feel like you’ve already seen enough of it (whereas the original music video remains an undisputed achievement in the mass pop culture of its day).
a-ha’s debut album sold 11 million copies and they found themselves touring round the globe… A press conference in New York City… playing Australia, Japan… Just as he was more heavily featured in the Take On Me video, singer Morten Harket was the one singled out for media attention, which suited all three band members fine – Morten enjoyed the attention and the limelight which wasn’t something the other two sought or craved – they simply wanted to get on with writing and playing music.
You can see rifts developing between the band members over time, little festering wounds from arguments as to who wrote or contributed to which song and what exactly the definitions of ‘songwriting’ or ‘arrangement’ should be – fundamentally, legal issues as to the nature of creative authorship in music. Further down their career, they split up and reform a couple of times with Pål increasingly isolated from the other two, a fact underscored when Magne and Morten return to Oslo to live there while he settles in the US.
Aside from a publicity misfire on their third album when they allowed themselves to be photographed as if they were a boy band, their career carries on with an unstoppable momentum as they churn out around a dozen albums. Curiously, the film is in the main more interested in the musicians’ personalities than their music – apart from one or two numbers, most notably Take On Me with its brilliantly simple lyrics and catchy keyboard phrases – you don’t really get a feeling for the strengths or otherwise of their output.
Like its naff title, this is ultimately not that incisive a documentary, and after it’s been going a while, it just sort of washes over you. It’s pleasant enough to watch, but you can’t help feeling that a far more incisive and compelling film could have been made about this particular band and their music. While this one accurately portrays a-ha as a global pop phenomenon coming out of Norway in the form of three fascinating and sometimes flawed individuals, it’s unlikely to turn anyone on to their music who isn’t already an admirer.
a-ha The Movie is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, May 20th.
a-ha UK 2022 live tour dates:
Bournemouth: Tuesday, May 24th
Liverpool: Wednesday, May 25th
London: Friday, May 27th
Birmingham: Saturday, May 28th