Music is absolutely a paradox when it comes to its tether to time. It’s at once a product of when it was made, but it can feel entirely free of that period, being discovered or rediscovered over and over again. We see this as genres like classic rock get shuffled to go from focusing on the songs of one generation’s parents to another. We see this, specifically, with bands like Pink Floyd, artists like Jimi Hendrix, and, to a specific degree, the band a-ha, known as the talent behind the 1985 global hit “Take On Me,” A song so prolific, it’s been covered in television shows, joined meme culture, and been included on Weezer’s 2019 “Teal Album,” which consisted entirely of covers. But the Norwegian band is a lot more than one song, with 10 albums released since 1985 and potentially another on the way, a-ha doesn’t appear to be fading quietly into that good night. But appearances can be deceiving, which director Thomas Robsahm and cinematographer/co-director Aslaug Holm explore in their intimate documentary a-ha: The Movie, as audiences are invited to learn the history of the band’s formation and the complications that have arisen over its near-forty years of existence, resulting in a band that now only comes together when it’s time to hit the stage.
A bit of context before diving in proper:
First, the most musical knowledge I possessed about a-ha was that “Take On Me” continues to generate new fans and that their 007 theme song, “The Living Daylights,” is about as underrated as the 1987 film it was made for and Timothy Dalton’s short-lived take on James Bond. The first being supported by the documentary itself and the second entirely a personal opinion.
Second, according to the press notes, after developing a cordial relationship with a-ha keyboardist Magne Furuholmen, Robsahm asked if he could record the band working on an upcoming album, but, despite interest, Magne suggested that the band would be breaking up soon. Which they did. After some time, the three members — singer Morten Harket, guitarist Pål Waaktaar-Savoy, and Magne — reformed a-ha and Robsahm and Holm started documenting the band’s activities in 2016 for several years. Rather than make a documentary tracking the making of an album or keeping things surface-level (you won’t learn where the trio got the name of their band from), Robsahm and Holm’s a-ha: The Movie uses their music to examine the members themselves and the respectful, yet contentious, relationship that exists between them. It is at once fascinating and heartbreaking that the artists who still play for crowds in the six-digit range don’t ride in the same cars or rest in the same rooms before gigs. And yet, despite being splintered, their songs continue to bring audiences together.
So how do you tell a story like this, making it accessible to general audiences while providing the kinds of insight that mean something to die-hards? That’s a tricky proposition for anyone, but Robsahm and Holm manage it by setting the stage quickly and without the usual talking head-style interviews to go along with it. Using a mixture of news footage, stage reenactments, interviews from principals, and a little artistic rendering in the same style as “Take On Me,” Robsahm and Holm creatively present the early days of the Morten, Magne, and Pål. The animation is a lovely touch at first, tipping its hat not only to the seminal music video but giving the set-up a magical quality; sadly, the animatics quickly overtake content, serving more as a distraction from what’s being said or recreated. Just as it becomes an overused flourish, it disappears, only coming back in the final moments of the doc. The reenactments are a nice touch, though, giving the audience something to hold onto visually while the narration from one of the three principals discuss their upbringing and their dreams of creating a musical legacy. As Morten, Magne, and Pål grow in age and have access to video and photo cameras, the reenactments go away in favor of their own, more accurate imagery. Other documentaries would let these images speak for themselves or, worse, edit things to present an idealized version of a past. That doesn’t happen here as there are several instances when Morten, Magne, and Pål may reply to something one or the other said with a contradiction. This beautifully shows that not all experiences are as we remember them (truth is entirely subjective, after all), while also highlighting that this documentary is unlike anything you’ve seen: this isn’t a highlight reel, but a true spotlight on a glorious tragedy.
That there are few traditional interviews throughout the doc supports this. The main people shown talking on-screen are Morten, Magne, and Pål. Both Magne and Pål’s wives, as well as Morten’s girlfriend, past and current mangers, and the like do contribute in the form of interview content, they are not shown doing so on-camera. You’ll see them in photos, archived footage, or footage taken by Robsahm and Holm, but they are not shown doing so. This approach makes it plain that there are outside influences, factors, and the like when it comes to Morten, Magne, and Pål and they are not isolated individually. That said, it’s clear that they are isolated from each other, covering the entire documentary with heartbreak. The downside to this approach is that unless you’re familiar with vocal intonations of everyone involved, it may be difficult to follow the narrations unless the speaker is shown. Pål is the easiest to identify as he primarily speaks English throughout, but Morten and Magne do not, requiring those less familiar to use context clues to understand what’s being discussed and from whose perspective, an aspect which grows more complicated to navigate as more voices are introduced. A-ha is all about perspective and understanding who’s speaking makes it easier to understand the very real issues that these three individuals, as far as the documentary is concerned, seek to address. Frustrating as that might be, given some time to process a-ha, I can’t help but wonder if making the audience less aware of which of the three is speaking is intentional to highlight the commonality among the undiscussed concerns or unresolved issues. There is more that binds these three than separates them, and it’s crushing to watch unfold.
Of all the things that separates a-ha from other documentaries, the most surprising is how the respective band members view why they got into the industry in the first place: the love of music. Though it’s caused Magne physical and emotional distress, he, Morten, and Pål wanted to create something that would outlast them. Each of them possess an artist’s soul, uninterested in financial gain or personal glory, merely seeking recognition for their work and wanting to leave something behind when they are gone. That these three can’t see eye-to-eye on the details among them is what makes their story so crushing, and yet, there remains a stubborn hope as they possess such respect for each other that none would ever perform as a-ha without the other two. This is where a-ha: The Movie truly separates itself from the pack. Robsahm and Holm don’t feed on their subjects’ pain, but presents them in all their complexity so that the audience may understand and, just maybe, provide the principals a chance at true reconciliation.
Screening during the 2021 Nashville Film Festival.
a-ha The Movie screens Tuesday, October 5th at 1:30p at Marathon Music Works.
Head to the festival’s Eventive page to purchase virtual tickets for a-ha: The Movie.
For more information, head to Motlys’s a-ha: The Movie website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.