Why am I drawn to music documentaries? Why are many of us drawn to music documentaries? Undeniably, there is the lurid behind-the-scenes factor of getting to peek at the inner tensions of bands. We marvel at how band members manage to come together to produce wonderful art all the while enjoying the name-calling, the flying projectiles, the breakups, and the reunions. But we may also be drawn to music documentaries about bands for another reason, a similar but less lurid one. Band documentaries are allegories for democratic politics.
With a band you have a group of strangers, sometimes childhood friends, sometimes family members, thrown together and engaged in a communal project. If democratic politics involves a collective sorting out of the procedures, convictions, and models by which a group of people wants to fashion a greater project; then a band is a microcosm of that collective endeavor. Bands exhibit all the tensions and dynamics found in political collectives—authoritarian figures, coalition formation, deliberation, economic considerations, distribution of merit, etc.—with an end goal of creating memorable art.
Directors Thomas Robsahm’s and Aslaug Holm’s documentary a-ha: The Movie is a comprehensive look into the careers of a-ha’s members. A-ha was formed in Oslo by childhood friends Pål Waaktaar and Magne Furuholmen. They formed the early musical backbone of the band and later recruited a very talented vocalist–Morten Harket. The trio’s influences ranged from the Doors, to Uriah Heep, to Queen, to even the Velvet Underground and Joy Division. Robsahm and Holm do a formidable job of setting the Oslo scene in the 70s, or better said, the lack of a “scene.” Oslo at that time was not exactly the epicenter of pop or rock.
The trio knew they had no other choice but to leave Oslo and head for London. They arrived in London in 1981 and soaked up the punk and post punk scene that electrified the city. They went to shows, took notes, and took inspiration from acts such as Soft Cell. Their early days in London were the opposite of synth pop sheen and glamor. The trio stayed in grubby flats and sometimes resorted to eating moldy food. They, however, were able to fight their way up the musical animal kingdom, got signed by Warner Brothers, got matched with the right producers, and hit the lottery—a spot on Top of the Pops.
Robsahm and Holm devote equal time to the stories of all three band members and their dynamics within the band. Pål Waaktaar and Magne Furuholmen have a productive but competitive relationship—songwriting credits become a source of tension. Morten Harket is thrust forward as the public relations face of the band. Harket feels tension over having to be the energetic and confident public expression of the band while suffering through waves of self-doubt over his voice. Robsahm and Holm are wise enough, however, to devote equal time to the honorary fourth member of the band—the song “Take on Me.”
It was “Take on Me” that took a-ha to the stratosphere and the documentary does not hide this. “Take on Me” put the band on heavy rotation on MTV, took them to number one on Billboard, made them world touring musicians, and made the boys from Oslo international household names. Robsahm and Holm adopt the same drawn sketch aesthetic from the song’s video for the documentary. They even reveal delightful nuggets of information about the song for those of us—me included—who were never hardcore fans of the band. Unbeknownst to me, Furuholmen composed the song’s famous synth riff back when he was fourteen years old. The documentary allows us to track early demos of the song on through the final version we are all familiar with.
A-ha: The Movie is a standard music documentary. It is, however, an entertaining and informative watch. For those of us who know a-ha only by way of “Take on Me,” the documentary is truly revelatory. Robsahm and Holm acquaint us with the band’s other work—their songs are scattered throughout the documentary. We also get to experience the band’s various phases—an awful boy band-ish phase, a U2 Joshua Tree phase, and even a more interesting proto-Coldplay phase.
All in all, we discover that a-ha are much more than one-hit-wonders. They are innovators. It only takes listening to the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” for a few minutes to realize a-ha’s influence. A-ha: The Movie’s most interesting revelation is not so much the fighting or the tension, it is the metamorphosis of a glam synth pop band into a mature workmanlike studio and touring band.
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