ABBA’s whirlwind concert tour of Australia in 1977 was vividly captured on film by director Lasse Hallström. As ABBA – The Movie is finally released on DVD, we take a look at the background to the film and the new DVD release.
A frenzied experience
As the hard, relentless rain was pouring down on the audience on a dark Thursday night in March 1977, a tense and expectant ABBA were preparing to run on stage to perform their very first live concert on Australian soil. Much of the 25,000-head Sydney audience had braved the rain for hours and hours, queuing to get the best seats in the arena. For when ABBA visited Australia for their first – and, as it turned out, only – concert tour, make no mistake: it was an event that affected the entire nation. ABBA’s series of live shows marked the peak of the group’s unparalleled popularity in Australia, where their singles and albums occupied the number one spot on the charts for weeks on end, only occasionally allowing another act a peek in. Fortunately, this amazing and spectacular tour was captured on film. And now ABBA – The Movie receives its first-ever release on DVD, carefully cleaned up and restored frame-by-frame in all its widescreen glory, and featuring a brand new 5.1 surround sound mix.
The director of the movie was Lasse Hallström, today an internationally renowned director with an ever-growing list of movies to his credit – from titles such as My Life As A Dog and The Cider House Rules, to 2005 releases like the Robert Redford/Jennifer Lopez vehicle An Unfinished Life and Casanova, starring Heath Ledger. But back in 1977 he was just starting out. In fact, although he had a decade’s worth of television experience, including one TV movie, ABBA – The Movie was only his second-ever cinema release. The reason he was assigned to direct the ABBA film was self-evident: he had almost single-handedly produced, filmed, directed and choreographed all of ABBA’s now-legendary promo clips, and would, with only a handful of exceptions, continue to do so up until the end of the ABBA story.
The ABBA film had in fact started out as a more modest 16mm production, intended for screening on television. However, at the behest of Reg Grundy Productions, one of the major producers of television entertainment in Australia, the project quickly grew into an ambitious Panavision project. With 25 per cent of the budget being supplied by Grundy, and the rest from Polar Music International – ABBA’s record label and production company – the film was ready to kick into production.
ABBA themselves hardly had time to consider the fact that a film was being made. Not least because the Australian trek was preceded by a European leg, which in itself was surrounded by excitement bordering on hysteria. “We were completely concentrated on the actual tour, the rehearsals and everything,” recalls Björn Ulvaeus in the brand new interview featured on the Limited Special Edition of the ABBA – The Movie DVD.
This lack of involvement on part of the group turned out to be to the film’s benefit in certain respects. Lasse Hallström had devised a plot for the film, involving the hapless disc jockey Ashley Wallace – played by Australian actor Robert Hughes – who is charged with the virtually impossible task of securing an in-depth interview with ABBA as they tour Australia. Initially, his identity wasn’t revealed to the group members, who were genuinely surprised and taken aback at “Ashley’s” constant attempts at grabbing their attention. ”I wondered who this odd, pushy journalist was,” recalled Frida. “He kept desperately asking strange questions all the time and always wanted us to ’go someplace where it was a little quieter’!” Watch out for the scene filmed on the steps outside Sydney’s famous Opera House and you will see what Frida means.
Certainly, the character of Ashley Wallace wasn’t the only one who wanted to get close to ABBA. There was an intense, unrelenting attention from the media and the masses of fans, which started the moment the group’s plane landed in Sydney and didn’t end until they flew back to Sweden two weeks later. “Wherever we were, there was a crowd,” remembers Benny Andersson in the DVD interview. “Whether it was at the arenas, or at the hotel, or if they found out that we were out on a boat somewhere. Then 17 other boats would turn up. It was a pretty unique experience.” Most unique of all, perhaps, was the reception at the Town Hall in Melbourne, where thousands of hysterically screaming fans had gathered to greet the group. Naturally, this electrifying event is prominently featured in ABBA – The Movie as well.
Another source for dramatic sequences – used as illustrations for the depiction of the pressure ABBA was under during the tour as well as the whirlwind atmosphere that marked their Australian visit – were some of the songs from the mini-musical The Girl With The Golden Hair. Conceived as a 25 minute extravaganza that closed the show (before the encores), Agnetha and Frida shared the part of the small-town girl who leaves her hometown to achieve stardom as a singer, only to find herself trapped by fame. With performances of mini-musical titles such as ‘I’m A Marionette’ and ‘Get On The Carousel’, coupled with scenes of ABBA talking to the media, dealing with enthusiastic fans, and so on, Lasse Hallström clearly had a field day in the editing room.
After the Australian tour was completed plenty of additional scenes were filmed in ABBA’s home town of Stockholm, Sweden. When the Swedish scenes were filmed, in June 1977, ABBA had just started work on their next album. Three songs had been completed: ‘The Name Of The Game’, ‘Eagle’ and ‘Thank You For The Music’. The first two songs were used for fantasy sequences in the movie, whereas ‘Thank You For The Music’ finished off the film nicely with scenes from the recording studio. But some scenes that supposedly took place in “Australia” were also shot in Stockholm, including many of the hotel scenes. Eagle-eyed viewers may even spot a few Swedish street signs here and here, in scenes that are supposed to depict events taking place on Australian soil.
Today, ABBA – The Movie works on several levels – for one thing, it offers a glimpse of certain moods and attitudes in 1970s Australia. But mainly, ABBA – The Movie is the film that depicts most clearly and unequivocally how extremely popular ABBA were in Australia and the energy that surrounded the group and left its mark on everyone who came close to them. Above all, along with ABBA In Concert (released on DVD in 2004), the film remains the only chance to get the feeling of experiencing the group on tour. For director Lasse Hallström, that is indeed the most important aspect of the film today. “I think that the concert parts hold up very well,” he says in the DVD interview, “I’m very proud of those sequences.” As well he should be.
The ABBA – The Movie DVD should reach retailers around the world, starting at the end of September and then following on throughout the month of October. The regular edition will contain the film only, while the 2-disc Limited Special Edition contains the 40-minute interview with Björn, Benny and Lasse Hallström that has been quoted throughout this text (this interview also contains rare glimpses from the tour rehearsals as well as scenes from the Stockholm premiere of the movie), along with the original theatrical trailer, two different ABBA – The Album TV commercials, a memorabilia picture gallery and a gallery of the original souvenir tour programme.