Digging the Dancing Queen
Yes, I am an unabashed ABBA fan for the simple reason that the time and effort put into the composition, arrangement, and recording of these pop songs is out of all proportion to their importance as music, giving them a life of their own that is far beyond what even their composers could have imagined. So naturally I jumped at the chance to review this DVD collection of every single promotional film (there were neither videos nor any MTV when they first began making these) the group made.
First, you have to remember that these films (or videos, if you prefer) were made between 1974 and 1982. MTV didn’t start broadcasting until the summer of 1981. That’s pretty far ahead of the curve, even though they were far from the only group to make promotional films before they became videos. These films were meant as stand-ins for ABBA. All the members of the group had been in musical projects before, and they wanted to minimize the time spent traveling and promoting their work, preferring instead to concentrate on actually creating their studio masterpieces and living their lives. Plane trips to Australia (where ABBA was very popular), taking 30 hours at the time, were not something they wanted to do often, and besides, they could be exposed to many more people with a filmed performance broadcast on the right TV program. In addition, they wouldn’t even have to appear at TV studios to lip synch performances if they could just send a film clip in their stead. So here we see the well-thought-out marketing plan that was the ABBA Corporation.
All but the last two clips presented here are directed by Lasse Hallstrom, who went on to great success as the director of such feature films as My Life as a Dog, Once Around, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Chocolat, and The Shipping News. Of course, the budget for these was incredibly low, and sometimes Hallstrom and the group shot two clips in a single day. So the first bunch of clips, including “Waterloo”, “Ring Ring”, and “Mama Mia” just feature the group lip synching, with Benny and Bjorn miming their parts on piano and guitar. A few extra musicians are added on some clips, but the idea is the same. Of course, the funky ABBA fashion sense is very much in evidence. Their trademark brightly colored spandex outfits were designed by Owe Sandstrom and his partner Lars Wigenius of Artist Dressing. Take a look at the second clip, “Ring Ring”, featuring Agnetha in red hotpants and halter top played off against Frida’s snakeskin catsuit—I’m not even going to mention the guys’ outfits (suffice it to say that capes don’t really make it on guitarists).
Hallstrom devised a style that included many close-ups of the band, particularly the girls, often shot in such a way that you look at one person’s profile while a straight on shot of another takes up most of the screen. This effect is used often, but is especially evident on the “Mamma Mia” video, which was reproduced beautifully and affectionately in Muriel’s Wedding. One amazing thing about these close-up shots is that, despite wearing makeup, you see a lot of imperfections that you would never be allowed to see in today’s videos. These folks have zits and other blemishes, not to mention hairstyles that don’t always frame their faces to the best possible effect. Nowadays, you can’t even make a video until you get to the point in your career where you’ve been totally made over and dressed by the record company. Even if you’re hideous in person, you are going to look good in the video. And it’s not that the ABBA kids don’t look good, fashion sense excepted, it’s more that they look like actual, genuine people. Weird, huh?
By the time of “SOS”, Hallstrom was using some new camera tricks, and the group is filmed outdoors, which makes them look much more natural. Here we get the first hint of Agnetha’s acting, which in this case means adopting a slightly pained expression that makes her look a bit like Jenny McCarthy. Frida’s red hair is more emphasized and she is glamoring up a little, wearing a fur coat. On “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” Benny and Bjorn mime playing saxophones (there is actual sax playing on the track) and the girls are shot in soft focus, giving them an angelic glow. On “Fernando”, Frida’s kinky hair has been straightened and the group performs in front of a campfire against a background of stars. It’s easily the best looking video we’ve seen up to this point. But the group has only just started hamming it up. “Dancing Queen”, shot in an actual discotheque introduces choreography (well, it’s just pointing, really) to the mix. It hints at the Euro disco sex appeal that would later become the group’s stock-in-trade, but is still a little on the wholesome side. Still, the group, and especially Frida, has really loosened up in front of the camera by this time. “Money, Money, Money” with its Sally Bowles meets Nana Mouskouri melody, and the video doesn’t disappoint with close-ups of champagne bottles, dollar bills, and lips. There’s also the weird shoulder-leading Greek/Russian dance the girls do, and the scene of the four riding around in a convertible, which does always remind me of Liza Minelli and Michael York tooling around in Cabaret.
“Eagle”, shot in 1978, was the first video in which Hallstrom shot the group directly onto videotape, giving the clip a real video look that is a precursor to the look of ‘80s videos. The girls have weird giant animals on their dresses, too. But the next series of clips, made in support of songs from the album Voulez Vouz really show the group transforming itself into what would soon be identifiable as a European dance sound. “Summer Night City” showed the group dancing and singing interspersed with shots of Stockholm at night and shots of the girls riding in Benny’s motorboat. Together with the strong dance beat and seductive sound of the song, the effect was “hot” in a way that ABBA had never been before. “Chiquitita”, which shows the band performing in the snow in front of a giant snowman, wasn’t done by Hallstrom, but he returned for “Does Your Mother Know” and “Voulez Vous.” Both of these are done in club settings, emphasizing the group’s dance appeal and associating them with nightlife and the possibility of sex. Frida really seems to enjoy these “club” videos and she really gets into this song. The next two videos “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” and “On And On And On” show the band in the studio and in live performance-sort of. The studio shots are clearly staged and the live performances are pieced together stills showing the group in concert.
The last really great video is “Super Trouper” which features circus performers and Agnetha holding her hand up in a “Number One” salute during the “onstage” portion of the video. But it also shows Frida in a simple sweater singing the lead on the verses, which pulls one’s focus to the beautiful sound of her voice on this song. “Happy New Year”, filmed in Hallstrom’s apartment, is a depressing video, and the first real sign that the end is near. Hallstrom only did three more clips after that. The last two, “The Day before You Came” and “Under Attack” were done by a team, and they were “real” videos, since by now video clips were important promotional items. “The Day before You Came” is full of apprehension and features some nice footage of the Arsta bridge in Stockholm. “Under Attack”, filmed in a warehouse, has a claustrophobic feeling and ends with the four ABBA members walking, backs to the camera, out of the warehouse and into the light. A short time later the group announced their breakup.
The DVD also includes “When I Kissed the Teacher”, a clip for a song not released a single, three Spanish language versions of videos, and a version of “Dancing Queen” lip synched at the gala tribute to Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf on the eve of his wedding. The group dresses in baroque outfits that hearken back to the bizarre threads of their earliest days, bringing the whole thing full circle.
It’s very simple. If you really like ABBA, then you’ll get a lot of entertainment out of this DVD. If you really hate them, you might still get some entertainment out of these videos, but there’s nothing here that will change your mind about them.