Review of “A-ha: the movie”: an appreciative point of view on them

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You’d think that the songs we call one-hit wonders — I’ve always applied the term interchangeably to bands and songs — would, by their very nature, have the quality of novelty singles. Many of them do, like “Come On Eileen” or “I’m Too Sexy” or “Spirit in the Sky” or “867-5309 (Jenny)” or “96 Tears”. But sometimes there’s a one-hit wonder that’s so transcendent it qualifies as one of the greatest pop songs you’ve ever heard – which makes it all the more mysterious that the band in question doesn’t. never came a million miles from replicating its sublimity or its success. . I’m thinking of songs like Chumbawamba’s ‘Tubthumping’, Redbone’s ‘Come and Get Your Love’, or perhaps the greatest marvel of all: Norwegian synth-pop’s ‘Take On Me’. A-ha trio.

As the new documentary “A-ha: The Movie” makes clear, A-ha has been around long enough and has enjoyed sustained exuberance from fans in concert, that the single hit classification seems a bit lighthearted. . (I’m sure fans would see it that way.) In a career that spans 35 years, A-ha has sold 50 million records and performed to crowds of 200,000. “Take On Me” appeared on their debut album, “Hunting High and Low”, released in October 1985 (although an earlier version of the song had appeared the previous year), and since then they have released 10 albums additional. The band members – guitarist and workaholic band engine Pål Waaktaar-Savoy, keyboardist Magne Furuholmen and vocalist Morten Harken – enjoyed a long-term musical marriage as close, charged and feuding as that of the Bees. Gees or the Stones. , and they’ve recorded many songs with that luscious synth-cake vibe. A-ha came out of the moment in the ’80s that gave us the lush majesties of Pet Shop Boys and Enya and “Major Tom (Coming Home)” and “Under the Milky Way,” and they never left that moment. behind them.

But let’s be realistic. A-ha became, and remains, famous for one and only one song (quickly, humming their 1987 James Bond theme song “The Living Daylights,” or any other song they’ve ever released). Other than that, they barely made it into the top 20 in the United States. Still, this song, in the latter half of the ’80s, was a staple, especially on MTV, where its half-animated black-and-white romance video, from director Steve Barron, was ubiquitous. It held a special place, because in the days before the romantic comedy revival, the “Take On Me” video could be said to be one of the great romantic films. movies from the 1980s, like “Ghost” compressed into four minutes.

And the song itself was so beautiful that somehow you never get tired of it; it was a love song that sounded like a percolating version of Christmas Day on Ecstasy. The magical beauty of “Take On Me” has something to do with the way its rhythm is so active – the fast, strong, almost punky drums that open it, the percussive synth riff that sounds like it could have being written by Bach, the dreamy, airy, edgy propulsiveness of it all – but the effect of the vocals and chords is to counterbalance all that activity with a feeling of pure timeless bittersweet soaring.

The synth riff was actually written by Magne Furuholmen in the 70s, when he was 14 or 15 years old. This was after he had met Pål (pronounced Paul), his former and future bandmate, who grew up 50 meters from him on an Oslo block of flats. We hear an early rock ‘n’ roll version of the riff, and it doesn’t sound particularly enticing. (They called it, derisively, “The Juicy Fruit Song,” because they thought it sounded like a commercial jingle.) We hear various other versions, including one that sounds like upbeat soft-rock reggae, and then, surprisingly, there is the original single version, released in October 1984, which somehow lacked the ecstatic verve of the one who became famous. It was a hit in their native Norway but fell apart everywhere else.

The band had been living in poor flats in London, struggling to get there since 1981, and it felt like the last gasp of their career. But they pushed on and ended up in the studio with producer Alan Tarney, who redid the song in a single day. Tarney, interviewed in the film, was so busy with other projects that for him “it was just another record, another day in the studio”. But his production liberated the song, and the reveal of it was that Morten shows off his vocal range by starting the chorus low (“Taaake…on…meee”), building it up on a higher and higher register. (“Taaake…meee…on”) and finally explode in the dazzling light of the falsetto (“I’ll…beee…gone…in a day or TWO!”). It was the most dramatic outpouring of cascading European male vocal incandescence since the Dutch hit “Hocus Pocus,” and it took the song to world domination.

As a movie called “A-ha: The Movie” should, this one, directed by Norwegian filmmaker Thomas Robsahm (with Aslaug Holm as co-director), tells you all you need to know about A-ha’s career. – ha, although that leaves out most of their personal life. Their youthful exploits are rendered using sketchbook cartoons done in the exact style of the “Take On Me” video, and we get to know the band members, who have a superficial Scandinavian centering that belies good many of their conflicts: Pål, the band’s master builder and perfectionist, soft-spoken but sometimes a bit grumpy; Magne, the most quietly fiery and confrontational of the bunch, the kind of person who can talk about not getting the writing credit he deserves and always seems to accept his irritation about it; and Morten, who turns out to be the most interesting because of the fourth dimension he brought to it all – the fact that he was a musician who exploded into a freak teen idol.

With his cat eyes and angelic cheekbones, he looked, in his prime, like an even more finely chiseled Patrick Swayze, and that look came to define much of the band’s brand. They decorated the cover of a thousand teen magazines, to the point that it created a reality that Morten felt trapped in. Now in his early 60s, he still looks stunning and is still the draw on stage. He has always been his own muse and is very hard on himself; even doing a soundcheck, he doesn’t call him.

Given that “A-ha: The Movie” is about as close as a music doc can get to a song’s story, with lots of power play treats around the edges, it has some great stories, like one about how the band clashed with producer-songwriter John Barry while recording “The Living Daylights,” or how they attempted to break out of the teen-pop niche by going in an almost U2-like direction, a diversion that didn’t work because it lacked U2’s conviction. The bottom line is that for most of their career, they dedicated their hours in the studio to crafting laborious album after album of superficially appealing pop that somehow lacked…the hooks. (Wish someone had paired them with Clive Davis.) We see them in rehearsal for an “MTV Unplugged” performance in 2017, and at the end of the movie they do a slow version of “Take On Me” that sounds as if this might have been recorded by Radiohead; it’s haunting. The song has of course haunted them, but there’s not a moment when you hear them say they’re sick of it. And why should they? For A-ha, “Take On Me” is more than a song – it’s their stairway to heaven, played every night for a world that’s more beautiful because of it.

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