18 May 2007

Can you hear the drums, Fernando?; or Your Cinematic Guide to all things ABBA

With Mamma Mia!, the ABBA musical, in pre-production stages, I thought I might take this time to celebrate the finest ABBA moments onscreen. Despite being an avid fan of the Swedish pop superstars, I have never endured Mamma Mia! onstage, as the theatre interests me little and horrid testimonials from my friends have steered me clear. This doesn’t however mean anything negative toward Benny, Björn, Agnetha, or Anni-Frid. Unintentionally, they have created some wonderful moments in cinema history, so why don’t we share in the great ABBA memories?

The most memorable use of ABBA has to be in P.J. Hogan’s sublime Muriel’s Wedding, starring Toni Collette as the title character, a sad, overweight girl with dreams of a perfect wedding and ABBA music. Other than perhaps ABBA: The Movie, Muriel’s Wedding features the most effective use of the group’s music, from Muriel and Rhonda’s (Rachel Griffiths) stellar lip-synching to “Waterloo” to Muriel being escorted down the aisle to “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do.” Naturally, ABBA’s most famous tune, “Dancing Queen,” plays during several critical moments of the film, perfectly setting the scene for Muriel’s unhappiness and subsequent liberty. You’ll never forget the heart-tugging speech Muriel gives to Rhonda once the two leave Porpoise Spit for Sydney: “Since I’ve met you and moved to Sydney, I haven’t listened to one ABBA song. That’s because my life is as good as an ABBA song. It’s as good as ‘Dancing Queen.’” Try not to be moved, and try not to envy someone who’s life is as good as “Dancing Queen.”

ABBA songs featured: “Dancing Queen,” “Waterloo,” “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do,” “Fernando,” and “Mamma Mia.”

Sticking with Australia (as well as actor Bill Hunter who plays Muriel’s father), ABBA also has a very significant role in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. In the internationally successful film, the threat of ABBA dance numbers is always hovering above Priscilla, the name given to the Swedish (go figure) tour bus three drag queens purchase to make their way north for a cabaret show. Bernadette (Terence Stamp), fed up with the shallow nature of conversation between her traveling companions Mitzi (Hugo Weaving) and Felicia (Guy Pearce), shouts a list of topics of conversation she will not partake in, citing ABBA as the prime offender. (She’s no fun, obviously.) When Mitzi finally reconnects with her son, he comments on how excited he would be to see his dad perform the ABBA show. Mitzi doesn’t fail his son, nor the audience, when he and Felicia, leaving Bernadette behind, perform “Mamma Mia” back in Sydney. Those Aussies just can’t get enough of infectious Swedish pop music.

ABBA songs featured: “Mamma Mia” and “Fernando”

ABBA is no less popular in the native Sweden, as shown in Lukas Moodysson’s Together (Tillsammans). Set in the mid-1970s in a hippy commune, the film portrays various characters and their respective lessons learned about tolerance. Though critically acclaimed, I think Together is easily Moodysson’s weakest film, an effective period film, though painfully shallow. In any case, the film ends with the entire commune coming out of the house and rejoicing while listening to, naturally, ABBA.

ABBA songs featured: The Internet Movie Database only reports “SOS,” though I remember there being several songs used throughout the film.

Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, also one of his weakest films, is set in the 1970s, when ABBA was taking the world by storm. Though hardly memorable as a film or for its use of ABBA music, Lee includes two ABBA diddies for good measure. The rest of the soundtrack, which features The Talking Heads and Grace Jones, is considerably more note-worthy than the film itself.

ABBA songs featured: “Fernando” and “Dancing Queen”

On television in the UK, the series Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge comes highly recommended. As Alan Parker, Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the show, plays a talk show host with a not-so-small obsession with ABBA. Two fine examples of such: Not only is “Knowing Me, Knowing You” the theme song for the show, but Parker introduces his guests with the line, “Knowing e, Alan Parker, knowing you, [name of guest].” Parker also, hilariously, took inspiration from the group in naming his son Fernando. Classic.

Though I haven’t seen the film, there is a Swedish film entitled House of Angels (Änglagård), about a city girl who returns to the country to claim the inheritance of her grandmother’s house. The music of ABBA is featured so prominently in this 1992 comedy that the film’s working title was actually Mamma Mia.

ABBA songs featured: “Mamma Mia,” “Chiquitita,” and “Fernando”

Who can forget ABBA’s own Hard Day’s Night, ABBA: The Movie? Well, many people, I assume, but it’s still probably the only decent film that Lasse Halström has ever made. The soundtrack features many ABBA tunes that haven’t (yet) made their way to film, like “Thank You for the Music,” “The Name of the Game,” and “Money, Money, Money.”

Though (thankfully) never created into a film (although there have been videos released), Benny and Björn made a musical, post-ABBA, entitled Chess, which features probably one of the worst songs of the 1980’s, “One Night in Bangkok” (though that song doesn‘t hold a candle to anything Starship released during the decade). The play opened in 1988 on Broadway and quickly closed due to scathing reviews.

ABBA began making music videos during the very early years of this phenomenon, so they have hardly stood the test of time. However, one can not deny the strange influence from fellow Swede Ingmar Bergman in the framing of a number of videos, particularly “Mamma Mia,” which showcases their signature white pantsuits. The profile of Agnetha with Anni-Frid facing the camera is textbook Bergman, featured most prominently in both Persona, with Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, and The Silence, with Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom. You might joke at the comparison of Bergman to ABBA, but there’s no denying the visual influence on a handful of their music videos. For a real laugh, check out the video for “The Name of the Game,” in which the girls sing, “What’s the name of the game?” while playing Sorry, the board game, with Benny and Björn. I really doubt getting all four of your pawns “home” was what they had in mind when writing the song.

Other films of note that featured music from ABBA:
Man of the House with Tommy Lee Jones (“Dancing Queen”)
Hardcore, from Greece (“Dancing Queen”)
Head over Heels with (yuck) Freddie Prinze Jr. (“Take a Chance on Me”)
Miss Congeniality (“Dancing Queen”)
Dick (“Dancing Queen”)
Man of the Year, the mockumentary about the gay Playgirl model (“The Visitors”)
Spetters, from Paul Verhoeven (“Eagle”)

And, finally, how about a few things you may not know about ABBA’s influence on the music world (thanks to wikipedia):

Admitted devotees of the group (some of which have covered their music) include Kurt Cobain, Evan Dando of the Lemonheads, Sinéad O’Connor, Michael Stipe of R.E.M., Courtney Love, Stephin Merrit and all the other members of The Magnetic Fields, the members of Ash, Madonna, Noel Gallagher of Oasis, Kylie Minogue (of course), the members of Erasure (of course, squared), and Elvis Costello.

Only two performers have ever been allowed to sample ABBA: The Fugees and Madonna. For the song “Rumble in the Jungle,” which was made for the documentary When We Were Kings, Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill, and Pras sampled “The Name of the Game.” It was the first time Benny and Björn allowed for their music to be used as a sample. Madonna did the same with “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” for “Hung Up” off her last album, Confessions on a Dance Floor.

I hope you know can consider yourself educated on the beautiful symbiosis between ABBA and the world of cinema.