THE BOOTLEG FILES: “ABBA: THE MOVIE”

There is a story which has been circulating for years that some anonymous moneybags offered to pay the four members of ABBA one billion dollars if they would reunite for a world tour…and that the Swedish superstars turned down the offer. While the tale is obviously apocryphal, it tells of the continuing popularity and mystery surrounding ABBA, who abruptly disbanded while they were still reigning pop stars.

There is plenty of mystery surrounding the group’s 1977 foray into films. “ABBA: The Movie” is currently unavailable on home video or DVD anywhere in the world. In fact, it hasn’t been seen in retail channels since 1989, when MGM/UA released it on video in the United Kingdom. Why the film has vanished is not clear, since there does not appear to be any problem with music clearance or performance rights.

Yet “ABBA: The Movie” always had something of a strange release life. The film was never theatrically distributed in the United States and years passed before it turned up of the Atlantic for a few cable TV broadcasts. It never had an American video release either. Although the film was made in Australia, it was never released on Australian home video and was only broadcast twice on Australian history, in 1979 and in 2001. Yet the film has played throughout Europe and it was a major commercial success in those engagements. Last December, a restored version of the film (with its original stereo soundtrack, which was supposedly lost for years) was shown in Stockholm. But no plans have been announced for screenings elsewhere.

As for the film itself, one can be charitable in stating it might not be such a bad idea for it to be unavailable for re-release. Rather than present a straightforward concert documentary or create a feature film adventure based on the band’s personality (in the spirit of “A Hard Day’s Night”), it was decided to do both. The result was a bizarre and frequently irritating hybrid in which ABBA’s 1977 national tour of Australia was shoehorned into a dumb comedy about an incompetent radio reporter’s increasingly vain attempts to secure an interview with the band. Australian actor Robert Hughes is dismal and obnoxious as the idiot reporter and most of his scenes involve him being ejected from hotels, concert venues and press functions by ABBA’s over-protective managers. Hughes’ character tries to compensate for the absence of an ABBA interview by grilling the groups fans, which results in too many gushy ABBA-addicts singing off-key praise for their beloved Swedes.

As for ABBA themselves, they seem like distant and elusive figures in their own film. Aside from an inane dream sequence musical number where they sing “The Name of the Game” in the mind of the snoozing Hughes, the band is only seen in quick glimpses of genuine press conferences and on stage performing their many hit tunes. It seemed that director Lasse Hallstrom (in his first English-language production) was either uncertain about trusting ABBA with dialogue or he was told to keep them as far from dialogue as possible.

ABBA fans will get a kick out of the concert numbers, which have a delightfully goofy charm that offer wonderful retro balance to today’s over-choreographed and mechanical pop concerts. All of the hit songs are here, along with a couple of intriguing duds (does anyone remember “Tiger”?). Whatever their talents in singing and music composition, the four ABBA members were perhaps the unlikeliest superstars to wobble and bobble across a concert stage. Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Faltskog were drop-dead gorgeous and blessed with stunning voices, but their count-your-step dancing fell somewhere between slapstick and spastic; at one point, they go into wild gyrations (complete with spaghetti arm flapping and tight hip shaking) that takes them far out of camera range and nearly into the backstage wings. Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson kept to their instruments and refrained from dancing, but their endless grinning and mugging is a bizarre sight to behold.

“ABBA: The Movie” is easily found on bootleg video and the quality of these tapes is pretty good. Pity the film didn’t present ABBA being themselves. A genuine concert film would’ve been far more entertaining and satisfactory than this dumb little mess.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on June 4, 2004 in Features by
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