To be a fan of a-ha in the United States during the late ’80s and early ’90s was to invite the same joke over and over: “Oh, is their greatest hits album an EP?” Not that a-ha ever stopped recording, or being successful in most parts of the world. But here, with the one song—you know the one—that’s used by so many movies and TV shows as shorthand for ’80s cheese, they’re best known as the band that tests your falsetto during karaoke. The same band that is often unfairly called a one-hit wonder still holds a Guinness World Record for highest concert attendance after a 1991 show in Rio de Janeiro, and by this critic’s estimation also did the second-best James Bond theme song, “The Living Daylights.” (The best, of course, is Duran Duran’s “A View To A Kill.”)
So a-ha: The Movie is not a documentary version of That Thing You Do, but it does acknowledge much of the world’s perception of the band even as it dutifully repairs their legacy. For the first half, we’re treated to numerous versions of “Take On Me,” from the original riff in a very different song to numerous (correctly) rejected incarnations, including the first single version that flopped. At least domestically, most ticket buyers will (perhaps rightfully) expect that. But what follows and surrounds the irresistible hook of that chart-topping tune is the story of a band, in their own words, that doesn’t follow either a rise-and-fall Behind The Music script or simply lean into nostalgia. It’s a compelling tale of three perfectionists who consider music to be their bond, but don’t work together very well unless they have to.
In the ’80s, singer Morten Harket was probably pinned up on almost as many European teenage girls’ walls as Tom Cruise and George Michael. It was never a role he sought, except to the extent that it attracted the attention of record labels at the beginning of the band’s career. In fact, when a-ha play live, it’s keyboardist Magne Furuholmen who acts as the frontman, bantering with the crowd and running the show. Meanwhile, guitarist Pål Waaktaar-Savoy is arguably the behind-the-scenes boss, though he hates the spotlight. Harket’s pipes encompass a magnificent vocal range, which is one reason the chorus of “Take On Me” not only stands out but endures so well: It begins low and ends super-high, spanning octaves most other rock stars can not.
The movie doesn’t try to make the case for the band’s greatness, largely because it doesn’t need to; as previously mentioned, their accomplishments set worldwide benchmarks. But it does offer some theories about why their music stalled in the U.S., and why Bono’s (possibly unintentional) crib from “The Sun Always Shines on TV” in U2’s “Beautiful Day” is exponentially better known here than the original. According to a-ha, their marketing error in the U.S. was to advance “Manhattan Skyline” as a single, with tempo changes and vocal shifts they hoped would give the trio their own “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The movie shows how they may have fought too hard with their label in this and a few other circumstances (who argues with John Barry over his credit for a Bond theme?), and capitulated too easily elsewhere (there’s a reason you only remember the videos that used rotoscoped animation, and it’s not because there weren’t others).
At one point, the movie leaps forward to the present day to show the band’s perfectionist nature in real time as they prep for MTV Unplugged. It’s a rare instance of Harket being the difficult one on camera after years of playing it effortlessly cool for magazine covers. Waaktaar-Savoy may be the control freak, and Furuholmen the resentful “little brother,” but it’s here we learn that Harket can tire of his own voice, and hates being forced to hit those high notes for too long.
Director Thomas Robsahm, who helmed the Norwegian documentary series Punx and produced 2022 Oscar nominee The Worst Person In The World, followed a-ha around for four years, enticed by the prospect of documenting the recording of their next album. That part never happened. The band broke up and reunited in that time, and still can’t agree to record anything new. Furuholmen seems to be the main holdout, thanks to a very personal reason he reveals toward the end of the film that goes far deeper than mercurial personalities or arguments over songwriting credit.
Cleverly utilizing a style of rotoscoping that’s similar to the band’s early videos, Robsahm creates flashbacks in real environments using drawn-in figures, occasionally also using it for interstitial shots he clearly wishes he had in live-action. That said, an astonishing volume of media survived from the band’s early analog days, but after achieving their biggest hit with their very first single, this film more than satisfactorily fills in gaps for longtime fans and newcomers alike.
Are there omissions? Sure. The movie doesn’t reveal the story of how the band got their name (Wikipedia is your friend here), nor why they record exclusively in English, though it’s safe to assume the latter was originally a targeted marketing decision. Waaktaar-Savoy, who married an American, speaks English only to the camera (He also now spells his first name “Paul”), while Harket and Furuholmen stick to Norwegian, though they speak both languages.
Nevertheless, it further heralds an advancing wave of documentaries (including Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers) that capture musical luminaries that first excited Gen-Xers. It’s awesome the boomers can choose from so many films about The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and many more, but for children of the 1980s, even one a-ha film in the last four decades feels like a real gift. Especially since its biggest accomplishment may be to celebrate their longevity to fans, and raze the notion of the group as a nostalgia act (even if they refuse to record any new albums). After all, they’re still on tour as of this moment, with a date at the Hollywood Bowl in July. Can we get Erasure: The Movie next? Asking for a friend.