Thursday, 8 December 2011

De Telegraaf, December 1977: ABBA, The Movie

A perfect stereo system is pouring out the music from the ABBA album - to be released in February '78 - over the champagne-nipping visitors that fill Stockholm's Look Theatre to half of its capacity. For that matter, it is safe to assume that this is the last time that 'ABBA-The Movie' is screened in front of so few people. The presidents of the record companies that release the group's records in several countries in the world can witness with their own eyes that they aren't the only ones that have followed the strict orders 'not to bring along any outsiders since this is an informal occasion'.
Although they are sitting in the same row, they are seated about fifteen metres apart. All of a sudden, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson look at each other in dismay and subsequently they quietly disappear through the nearest side door. A little while later they show up behind me to - after a whispered conversation with the guy behind the mixing console - change something about the sound equalisation that makes no audible difference to normal people. A minute later they carelessly walk back into the cinema, both on a different side of the room, a glass in their hand as if they just had to leave their seats for some other reason.
"What has changed?" I ask the sound technician. "There's a little less bass now," he explains stoically as soon as he has lost the attitude 'I don't know what you're talking about'. It turns out that Ulvaeus and Andersson have made a new mix that morning especially for the informal screening at the Look Theatre. For the launch of the new album, the creative half of ABBA is using a 32-track tape instead of the so called 'master'! It's typical for the perfection that ABBA is striving for.

"I'm very sorry," says Stig Anderson, the lovable looking but rumoured to be stone-hard manager of ABBA. "An interview just isn't possible." We are standing in the lobby of the Look Theatre after he has guided me past the Cerberus at the entrance with the most endearing smile on his wrinkled newspaper face, after having read the letter word for word that should give him the impression that my visit is far more important than that of the entire Dutch cinema audience. I point him to the word 'meeting' that refers to a promise that a staff member from Polar - in other words ABBA Inc. - has made me by telephone a couple of days earlier.
"Oh," Anderson says unconcerned. "A meeting, that's a different matter. I'd be glad to arrange for you to get a handshake from the three present group members, but I assume you didn't come to Stockholm for that." I can confirm that wholeheartedly. "The only problem is that I have a strict agreement with the group that they absolutely won't talk to the press," says Anderson. "The Swedish press isn't even here! The press will be able to see the movie in two weeks time and then you are welcome."
Still very friendly but sadly very determined as well, he turns around to disappear in the party noise. In the last minute, I manage to grab him by the elbow behind which he is keeping so many secrets according to the major part of the Swedish press. "I will make a deal with you," he says at last. "You won't have to wait until the press screening. I will let you watch the movie at an earlier date. Call me tomorrow after ten. At the office. Then we can work something out." And he is gone.

"Well, then you are not in luck," says the Polar staff member that promised me that 'meeting' a few days ago, the reason why I am here right now. "Whatever Stig wants, happens. I can't do anything about that. Maybe you could talk a little during dinner." What dinner? "Afterwards," says the Polar employee. "After the movie."
Stig is busy welcoming a late comer when I approach him again. I prepare myself for a verbal trench war but his attitude still lies somewhere between 'who are you again' and 'I can't be too bothered by all this'. I say that I talked to my Polar connection who told me something about a dinner.
"Oh, that!" says Anderson. "You are very welcome. We don't have any interviews to give today, but we can offer you an aquavit and a steak. Afterwards, two buses will be at the entrance. You get on the one that is parked most incorrectly. That's the one that leaves first."
I walk into the cinema with a glass of champagne. The movie starts. 'ABBA-The Movie'.

You could hardly expect anything else from a top group that holds perfection high in its family banner. But still, afterwards even the biggest sceptic is astounded by the quality of the ABBA movie. 'ABBA-The Movie' exudes class from start to finish, pared with a solid self-knowledge and an even bigger knowledge of the audience for which the movie is made. It is top drawer family amusement and 'ABBA-The Movie' won't be kept in that drawer very long.
The movie has everything that a good music movie should have: humour, a glance behind the scenes of the rock business, insight into the motives of the separate members and most of all outstanding music. And I don't mean that only in the artistic sense - because ABBA's music won't appeal to everyone, like it does to me - but in a technical sense as well.
The sound of 'ABBA-The Movie' is the best that has ever been heard in such a music movie and the recording of the sound and visuals from the concert tops everything that has been done in this area, including Elvis' 'That's The Way It Is' and 'Mad Dogs & Englishmen'.
'ABBA-The Movie' mainly revolves around a concert that the band gave last year in Sydney during a tour that encompassed all major Australian cities. 25.000 people had been waiting in the pouring rain all day long for ABBA and their need for entertainment was so big (and the group's form so glorious) that the concert could turn into a truly unique event.
All the big hits - including a future hit like 'Eagle' that most probably will be the next single - are in there and all of them performed wonderfully. The musical 'The Girl With The Golden Hair' and the encore of all the live shows 'Sing The Song Together' that is usually sung together with their twelve-piece band, are performed too.
The footage of the ABBA concert and all things surrounding it (a press conference, the travelling, hanging around in hotel rooms, the stage fright, the past of the separate members, the taking shape of their songs in the cottage on the group's island at the Stockholm coast) are linked together by a tiny storyline about an Australian DJ who gets the assignment from his bosses to make a radio special during ABBA's tour, wherein not only their hits are being played but that should also focus on the people behind the stars.
The DJ - who never seems to have heard of ABBA as a matter of speaking because he is only into country music - is chasing the group all over Australia, but he never gets any further than the bodyguard who is hired especially for this tour - a professional sent by the trade union - or Stig Anderson who plays an extraordinary convincing part in 'ABBA-The Movie' as ABBA's manager, something that I can confirm from my own experience.
Seated in the back row of the Look Theatre, I pray that the same fate awaits me as the DJ in the movie, because just when he wants to inform his boss about the failed mission he simply runs into the group in the hotel's elevator and he is able to do his interview in all peace and quiet. Even better than he dreamed shortly before on the silver screen wherein he is having a drink with the ABBA boys in a saloon while he is supported at the poker table by Agnetha and Frida on both his arms.

Dreams don't come true, that goes for the Australian DJ but for me as well. The intimate dinner turns out to be a party for 150 people and I'm lucky to find a seat near the former Polydor child prodigy - and these days International boss - Freddy Haayen, but I'm annoyingly far from the place where it all happens.
The aquavit comes with the steak and the wine comes with the coffee, but in any case there is enough to toast to with Stig Anderson who - to everybody's amusement and later on even emotion - sings a Swedish drinking song, by which all the people present have to reply to him vocally and a Norwegian gentleman who informs us that ABBA doesn't leave the people in his country unaffected either and hands them an ugly as hell award, designed especially for this occasion. The silver schooner. Or trawler, I'm not sure about that.

"Thanks for coming," says Stig Anderson in a friendly manner, as a way of saying goodbye. "Better luck next time. Call me tomorrow after ten." "Then we can work something out," I reply before he is able to continue. He laughs cordially and says: "No hard feelings." On my way to the bus I see a couple of people withdraw quietly in a small room and while Anderson escorts his guests into the bus as some kind of travel agent, I decide to wait a little longer.
I talk to the waiter and the cloakroom attendant ("Oh yes, they are taking care of us really well, that's how things work at Polar") and then I decide to take a look in the small bar. Anderson is standing right at the bar with a clear view on the entrance. For the fourth time I shake his hand. "Have a drink," he says. Is it my imagination or do I detect an amused admiration.

The company appears to have been reduced to about fifteen people. Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and his Frida are mingling in the crowd as if this party is strictly business. They are buttered up by guests of all kinds of nationalities who claim with their heavy accents that 'ABBA-The Movie' is the best thing they have ever seen in their life, while it turns out after a little investigation that 'ABBA-The Movie' is the first movie they have seen since 'Gone With The Wind'.
The party ends at exactly two o'clock. I decide to do a tactic master stroke and ask director Lasse Hallström for an interview. His first reaction is perplexed and then honoured because he has only managed to join into the party with his ten second speech ("ABBA has been a good producer because they didn't interfere with anything. Thank you!") and from all those present no one even had a spoon of syrup left.
"We have to go," Hallström says with a helpless look on his face. "But if you want to come along for a nightcap..." In the bus there are only ten people left. And Stig Anderson is not one of them!

Lasse Hallström's circle of friend has been diminished considerably the past few years due to his collaboration with ABBA. Despite his 34 years, he has been known for years as a brilliant director with a progressive mentality and a couple of gems credited to his name that have been screened abroad on a regular basis, like recently on Dutch TV 'The Marzipan Pig'. When he was asked three years ago to make promotional films for ABBA, he first thought they were pulling his leg. But at the first meeting, it turned out that Björn and Benny had studied Hallström's body of work and were very familiar with his work.
"In all modesty, I can claim that these promotional films have played a part in the group's success. They were broadcast all over the world and apparently they all have the right mixture of romance, naivety and that indefinable amount of clean sensuality that turns the group into family entertainment. I've coincidentally managed to capture that on screen and in 'ABBA-The Movie' it turns out that way too. Older people think they are two decent couples that look so respectable compared to the other stars that are hanging on the wall of their children's bedroom. And the younger people only see these two gorgeous women."
"I think this is the reason why they have lasted so long: the girls are the focus of attention and the boys are in charge from a creative point of view. That's how all egos are sufficiently satisfied and everything remains balanced."
"Filming a movie like 'ABBA-The Movie' can be compared to preparing the Swedish soccer team for the World Championships. In other words: almost impossible. But just like it's the case with the Swedish soccer team, the end result is completely separated from the operating conditions. The harder the working conditions, the better the end result. We had prepared ourselves until the smallest detail in Sydney but on the day of the concert it rained for hours and it was so dangerous on the working platforms that were built especially for the occasion that we couldn't even film what we wanted. In reality it turned out that I directed seventeen camera guys all over the place by radiotelephone, so that the movie was actually put together in the cutting room. And in the studio of course, because the sound tapes consisted mostly of the sound of rain."

"How that works, doctoring the tapes in the studio?" says Björn somewhat tediously. "There are different ways of doing that. You can arrange the spatial effect in the studio by adding resonance or by taking a distance from a sensitive microphone and mix the sound of the audience in there. But this was only necessary occasionally, it was mostly a matter of patching up the vocals. If it was any different I would tell you! Otherwise we wouldn't have shown in the movie that the sound of Benny's accordion is actually made by a synthesizer and how our vocals are supported in difficult parts by the backing singers?"
"I think these comparisons with the Beatles are very flattering but they usually don't make sense. In certain ways they are an example for us. The Beatles also had an ingenious management and the timing for all their activities was perfect. With them, everything seemed to come at the right time: singles, albums, movies, books. And slowy but surely we want to make our music a little more complex too, so that our hits don't become too obvious and remain somewhat unpredictable. Take a song like 'Name Of The Game' for instance. In this refined arrangement, it would never become a hit if the radio stations didn't play it incessantly. A trained DJ already needs to play the record five times to hear its structure and for the car stereo or the radio at work you'll have to add five times to that before it will get you hooked. So you might say that ABBA takes advantage of the audience's appreciation by developing as composers as well."
"The fact that ABBA delivers a product that's controlled from start to finish by Björn, Stig and me is because no one seemed to be interested when we started this combination," says Benny when he mingles in the conversation. "If that had been different, we might have been forced to look for a publisher or accept an outsider as our producer. Or even sing songs written by others. Now we were able to complete what we set out to do quietly without anyone being interested. It wasn't until after 'Waterloo' that the vultures started showing up but at that time we were such a close unit that we knew that we didn't need anyone else. For me this was proof for an old basic rule that I always expected to be true but that I could never prove: do everything yourself if you are convinced that you are right, because no one can do it better. That's because in essence no one knows anything about the rock business. Commercialism can't be forced. One day - after having tried separately for ten years - we were suddenly in tune with the audience. I think it's a miracle that it has lasted for five years already. I think it's out of the question that it will last for another five years."

At 7:30 in the morning we call it a day. When I tell them that I barely have time to pack my suitcase at the hotel near the airport, they decide to drive me there in the limo. On the (indeed perfect) stereo system Benny plays a compellingly beautiful version of 'Name Of The Game' like he and Björn put it together with just piano, guitar and two delicate Swedish voices in the cottage on their little island and the hit version that's included on their next record 'ABBA-The Album'.
The book was called 'ABBA-The Phenomenon', the movie 'ABBA-The Movie' and the record 'ABBA-The Album'. This really suggests stardom, I remark. "Stardom?" says Benny. "That doesn't mean anything to me. I'm more successful than ever but the criticism has never been as heavy either. For that matter, you have been able to see for yourself that we are able to sit in a night club until the morning here in Stockholm without one Swede looking our way. When I went out for a drink after a performance with the Hep Stars we were stormed by fans on a regular basis. So what is stardom? Stardom is an expensive seat in the cinema at your own movie, that's stardom!"


Anonymous said...

Such a long text for a poor human being from Germany . . . puuuh . . . moans Henriette ;oD

Karin said...

Well, actually he is from the Netherlands. The text is in Dutch and De Telegraaf is a Dutch newspaper.

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