Sunday, June 13, 2021

Tribeca ’21: a-ha: The Movie

They are not one-hit wonders--not even close. They had an international #1 follow-up single, a reasonably popular James Bond theme song, and arguably one of their biggest hit albums in 2009. However, when most people think of the band a-ha [no caps] it is “Take on Me” that they hear in their heads. For decades, they remained one of the top drawing live bands, despite inner turmoil and creative differences. The band members tell their story in Thomas Robsahm & “co-director” Aslaug Holm’s a-ha: The Movie, which screens as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

They were three kids from Oslo with rock & roll dreams. Unfortunately, the world was not exactly waiting for a Norwegian Invasion in the early 1980s. Nevertheless, Pål Waaktaar, Magne Furuholmen, and Morten Harket still boldly moved to London in search of musical glory. After a lot of scuffling, they almost botched their big break when they released a version of “Take on Me” featuring some dubious production decisions.

Somehow, Harket, their front-man, convinced Warner Brothers to let them re-record and re-release the song in a style that was more representative of the band. One of the label executives was looking for an opportunity to work with an animation team and thought a-ha’s tune might be a good test case. He brought in director Steve Barron and the resulting video became iconic.

Of course, dealing with success would be a challenge in itself. A great deal of tension would develop within the band, especially between Waaktaar and Furuholmen. Things always really seemed to boil over when they were recording in the studio. The “Living Daylights” sessions were especially fraught, but in that case, the band was pretty unified in its opposition to the micromanaging of Bond music kingpin John Barry.

Robsahm (credited as director and writer) & Holm (billed as co-director and cinematographer) had a huge advantage just in the fact that the band is a trio. They were consequently able to fully convey the personalities of all three, without giving preference to anyone. They include a few wives and early managers here and there, but a-ha largely speaks for themselves.

We also get a clear sense of how minor aesthetic differences metastasized into long-term resentments. There were also legal questions of song authorship that carry considerable financial implications. However, one thing that is conspicuously missing from the film is any mention of drugs and alcohol, which might be why they are all still alive. In fact, Harket, the former reluctant teen heartthrob looks pretty good for 61. It is almost eerie seeing him—like looking at James Dean if he had safely lived to his early sixties.

Like a good a-ha concert,
The Movie starts and ends with “Take on Me.” The film also slyly incorporates periodic animated motifs that deliberately evoke Barron’s classic music video. As a result, it supplies a big, satisfying serving of 1980s video-era nostalgia.

Honestly, you will be forgiven if you didn’t remember anything from a-ha since
The Living Daylights (which is a criminally under-rated Bond film). Yet, the band had second, third, and maybe even fourth acts. That also means a lot of The Movie will be new-to-you. It is actually pretty interesting inter-band drama, especially because it is set to the classic “Take Me On.” Highly recommended for fans of the band and the 1980s milieu they emerged from a-ha: The Movie streams through June 23rd as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.