A band’s 40th anniversary is nothing to sneeze at, but learning that one of the groups to reach that milestone is the Norwegian trio a-ha might warrant not so much an achoo as a gasp, double take, or “Come again?”
Since 1985, we’ve all lived with the sparkling earworm of syncopation, synth and pop crooning that is the single “Take On Me,” the kind of breakout chart-topper (in 36 countries) that you just knew was going to define an era’s sugary, youthful romanticism. The dynamically conceptualized half-animated music video didn’t hurt its immortality campaign either, with lead singer Morten Harket’s chiseled, sensitive pouty-rebel presence — someone, please, help him! — destined to adorn teenage walls everywhere. a-ha was ‘80s MTV fame personified, but that song is also a truly great pop classic.
And yet, as Norwegian filmmaker and proud fan Thomas Robsahm’s affectionate documentary “a-ha: The Movie” reveals, “Take on Me” is the kind of rocket to stardom that’s both a blessing and a curse when you’re trying to forge a long, varied career. Despite what Americans used to the regular rotation of well-publicized pop artists may believe, a-ha weren’t one-hit wonders: Harket, Pål Waaktaar-Savoy, and Magne Furuholmen have put out ten albums, sold over 50 million units, have nurtured lasting, regular fans around the world (Coldplay’s Chris Martin cites them as an influence), and even earned a Guinness record for biggest paying-crowd concert attendance (198,000 in Rio in 1991) that lasted until fairly recently.
They also got this documentary, filmed over four years, which doesn’t entirely convince as to its feature-length necessity. But for the diehards and the curious, it should hold some intrigue, because in its exploration of pop longevity and band dynamics, it’s more a cousin of “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” (Joe Berlinger’s fascinating chronicle of the rock group’s personality turbulence ) than the typically image-conscious, preserve-the-legacy music doc.
Looking comfortably late-middle-aged, but still healthy-looking and — in Harket’s case — no less photogenic, they come off in vérité backstage moments as guys fulfilling an obligation, committed but bemused, and occasionally irritable. The subject of whether there will be a new album triggers the term “hornet’s nest” (as translated into English) from keyboardist-guitarist Furuholmen.
He and Waaktaar-Savoy were childhood friends bonded through a love of music, who joined forces with the vocally gifted Harket and left Oslo for London in the early ‘80s to make their new wave dreams come true as they barely eked by in rundown bedsits. The right manager, a resurrected riff and a big label’s interest led to their 1985 debut album “Hunting High and Low” and the mega-single that anointed them a teenybopper fame they could never quite shake. U.S. interest waned after the first two years, but continued popularity elsewhere for their brand of soaring, jangly Europop spurred them to keep at it. They spent subsequent decades toggling between changing their sound one album, trying to please audiences the next, as if to justify a meteoric success while also ensuring people enjoyed the true artists inside.
Mutual respect and ambition keep them working together, but their grievances — Waaktaar-Savoy is too controlling, Furuholmen’s musical ideas don’t warrant his credit gripes, Harket’s an aloof perfectionist whose fame eclipsed the others — are deep and lead to occasional splits. Although they’re interviewed separately, which allows them a certain articulate candor, they also exhibit enough self-awareness about what the band has given them. They may not think they’ve arrived at the therapy stage yet, as Metallica did, but one of their wives, also interviewed, thinks they have.
It’s still hard to care for a-ha for longer than an hour, though; sorry, Norway. Robsahm, who is primarily a producer (he produces countryman Joachim Trier’s films, including “The Worst Person in the World”; yay, Norway!), makes the most of his archival, interview, and follow-around footage. And it says something that one of the best scenes is them recording an unplugged version of “Take On Me,” and you realize just how sturdy that song is in its melody, lyrics, and Harket’s versatile singing. But ultimately, this is a career saga that isn’t terribly interesting outside the internal struggles that keep them forever worried about how much longer they can keep making a-ha moments.
“a-ha: The Movie” opens in select U.S. theaters April 8.