A group is 40 years oldand anniversary is nothing to sneeze at, but learning that one of the bands to reach this milestone is Norwegian trio a-ha might warrant not so much an achoo as a gasp, a double take or a “Come back?”
Since 1985, we’ve all lived with the glistening earworm of syncopation, synth and pop crooning that is single “Take On Me,” the kind of chart-topper (in 36 countries) you knew it was. he was to define a sweet, youthful romanticism of the time. The dynamically conceptualized, semi-animated music video didn’t hurt his campaign for immortality either, with singer Morten Harket’s chiseled and sensitive presence of singer Morten Harket’s sulky rebel – someone please help. -the! – destined to adorn the walls of teenagers everywhere. a-ha was 80s MTV stardom personified, but this song is also a great pop classic.
And yet, as Norwegian filmmaker and proud fan Thomas Robsahm’s affectionate documentary “a-ha: The Movie” reveals, “Take on Me” is the kind of rocket ship to stardom that’s both a blessing and a curse when you are trying to forge a long and varied career. Contrary to what Americans accustomed to the regular rotation of high-profile pop artists may believe, the a-has were not blockbuster marvels: Harket, Pål Waaktaar-Savoy and Magne Furuholmen released ten albums, which sold over of 50 million units, nurtured regular and lasting fans around the world (Coldplay’s Chris Martin cites them as an influence) and even won a Guinness World Record for the highest paying concert attendance (198,000 in Rio in 1991) which lasted until fairly recently.
They also got this documentary, shot over four years, which isn’t entirely convincing as to its need for a feature film. But for the diehards and the curious, it should be intriguing, because in its exploration of pop longevity and band dynamics, it’s more of a cousin to “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” (the mesmerizing Joe Berlinger’s chronicle of the rock band’s turbulent personality) than the typically image-conscious, legacy-preserving music doc.
Looking comfortably middle-aged, but still healthy and – in Harket’s case – no less photogenic, they show up backstage as guys fulfilling an obligation, engaged but puzzled and sometimes irritable. The question of whether there will be a new album triggers the term “hornet’s nest” (as translated into English) from keyboardist-guitarist Furuholmen.
He and Waaktaar-Savoy were childhood friends bound by a love of music, who joined forces with vocal gifted Harket and moved from Oslo to London in the early 80s to fulfill their new wave dreams as they barely moved in dilapidated rooms. The good manager, a resurrected riff and major-label interest led to their 1985 debut album “Hunting High and Low” and the mega-single that anointed them with teenybopper fame they could never quite shake. . Interest from the United States waned after the first two years, but continued popularity elsewhere for their burgeoning and jangly brand of Europop kept them going. They spent the next few decades switching between changing their sound from one album to trying to please audiences the next, as if to justify a runaway success while making sure people appreciated the real artists inside.
Mutual respect and ambition keep them working together, but their grievances – Waaktaar-Savoy is too bossy, Furuholmen’s musical ideas don’t justify his credit reproaches, Harket is an aloof perfectionist whose fame overshadows the others – run deep. and lead to occasional splits. Although they are interviewed separately, which allows them some articulate candor, they also show enough awareness of what the group has given them. They may not think they’ve reached the stage of therapy yet, like Metallica did, but one of their wives, also interviewed, thinks they have.
However, it’s still difficult to deal with a-ha for more than an hour; Sorry, Norway. Robsahm, who is above all a producer (he produces the films of his compatriot Joachim Trier, including “The worst person in the world”; yay, Norway!), makes the most of his archives, his interviews and his images feedback. And it’s saying something that one of the best scenes is that they record an unplugged version of “Take On Me,” and you realize how solid that song is in its melody, lyrics, and Harket’s versatile vocals. But at the end of the day, it’s a career saga that isn’t very interesting outside of the internal struggles that forever worry them about how long they can keep having a-ha moments.
“a-ha: The Movie” opens in select U.S. theaters April 8.