[The script of the video essay follows.]
Agnetha, Benny, Bjorn, Anna-Frid: their initials spell ABBA,
a nonsense word, childish, almost preverbal, as much a brand name as a
band. Their distinctive image,
indivisible from their sound and their success, was in large part crafted by Lasse
Hallstrom, a director better known for his quirky comedies, like My Life as a Dog, What’s Eating Gilbert
Grape, Chocolat, and The Hundred Foot
Journey. Hallstrom was getting his start as a television director in
Stockholm when he was approached by ABBA’s manager, Stig Anderson, in 1974. Anderson
wanted Hallstrom to produce a series of promotional spots for the group. He would go on to direct over thirty ABBA
videos. These videos created an indelible pop image and documented the
super-group’s meteoric rise and tragic fall.
Before MTV, music videos were a novelty. Elvis’ fifties musicals and Richard Lester’s
films for the Beatles in the 1960s established many of the conventions of the
genre. Swoony close ups, rhythmic jump cuts, and intimate, casual footage of
the band goofing off captured the experience of listening to the music, and
indulged the audience’s fantasy of hanging out with the group. Singers like Nancy
Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood filmed television specials that ran like mini-movies,
juxtaposing performance with narrative film-making, setting the singers against
exotic landscapes, creating fantasy visions of the songs’ lyrics.
Then along came ABBA.
After struggling for years as solo artists, the members of the group
began looking beyond the shores of their native Sweden for popular
success. They first gained it with their
victorious performance of Waterloo at the Eurovision song contest in 1974. Already the band’s signature elements are in
evidence: Anna-Frid’s imposing perm, Agnetha’s flowing mane, glowing Swedish
complexions, and costumes that look like they were made by two teenage girls
left for an afternoon in the attic of their stage-actress grandmother. By the time they approached Hallstrom, their charming smiles and unaffected pleasure
in performance were so irresistible they almost disguised the rudimentary
choreography. Also, the singers’ sex appeal nearly made up for their goofy
looking male cohorts. ABBA may have been the first video stars in pop history.
Hallstrom’s earliest videos for the group were all seemingly
shot in a day in the same studio, with costume changes between songs. The
videos laid down a basic visual vocabulary that perfectly complemented the
music’s elegant simplicity. Camera zooms
in, mascara, lipstick, dazzling smiles fill the screen; pan right, taking in
the whole band, swaying with the music’s rhythms; quick cuts in time with the simple
four/four beat. The men, fixed in place,
rooted to their instruments, lend a visual anchor for the minimal movements of
the women, by contrast making them seem dynamic, vibrant. And through it all, what costumes: flashes
of David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Gary Glitter, but always with a quaintly home-made,
theatrical quality that made ABBA approachable, and silly, but in a good way.
One of Hallstrom’s visual signatures came from an unlikely
source. In Persona, fellow Swede Ingmar Bergman juxtaposed the faces of
actresses Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson in dreamlike sequences suggesting the
gradual merging together of their identities and the mental and emotional
confusion that follows. Hallstrom
employed this motif in a humbler context to create a visual counterpart to the uncannily
sympathetic voices of the band’s two singers.
Eventually Hallstrom took the band out of the studio,
setting them against landscapes that complemented the band’s Nordic image;
frozen tundra, sunset at sea, eagle over mountains. As their songs began to take on more esoteric
topics, Hallstrom created mini-films that dramatized their peculiar lyric
narratives. It’s easy to forget how
preposterous it is for two Swedish women to be reminiscing about some long-ago
revolutionary battle with the song set against a roaring fire, Bjorn strumming
away on his acoustic guitar…at least until the camera pans back to reveal an
obviously fake starry sky above. The
video for their most successful single, “Dancing Queen,” avoids disco glitz for
a decidedly more downmarket club experience; the dancers all seem to be
underage, underscoring the song’s wistful nostalgia, as the singers look across
the generation gap at a girl having the time of her life.
As the band continued to climb international pop charts,
Hallstrom responded to their global fan base with videos that allow us to hang
out with ABBA, strolling down the streets of Stockholm, even sharing
breakfast. These intimate moments made the
band resemble the most successful double date in pop history.
But this happy intimacy wasn’t to last. In January of 1979, Agnetha and Bjorn
announced their plans to divorce.
Anna-frid and Benny followed in 1981.
Although they’ve repeatedly claimed that “The Winner Takes it All” was
not autobiographical, the video begins with a montage of the band in happier
times, before cutting to Agnetha, her curls hanging limply, mascara smudged,
face pale from crying: this is one of more nakedly honest images of despair
ever shown in a music video. Hallstrom’s
lighting is natural, intimate, the editing restrained, with only the occasional
freeze frame to suggest the happier moments are snapshots of a time now
“One of Us” is even more abject, portraying Agnetha
unpacking alone in a new apartment. The
lighting is stark, the contrast harsh; this is ABBA’s first film shot on actual
videotape, and the colors seem drained of all their former vibrancy. For one brief moment there is a splash of
yellow across the screen, recalling happier days, brighter costumes.
Played from beginning to end, Hallstrom’s videos for ABBA
can be watched like one of his wistful comedies, youthful eccentricity and
goofy innocence giving way to bitter experience. Beyond telling us more about
one of the great pop bands than any of the numerous documentaries and tell-all
biographies that followed the band’s last performance, these small films created
a visual vocabulary for the video era that followed.
Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and
content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films
usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as
the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which
boasts the tagline: “Liberating Independent Film And Video From A
Prehistoric Value System.” You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.