The band a-ha scored a worldwide hit with “Take On Me,” sold 50 million albums, and recorded one of the best James Bond themes ever. Despite being most heavily associated with the '80s, the band has released new albums and toured off and on ever since their heyday. Doing so has not been easy, due to long-standing tensions among the members. The documentary a-ha: The Movie looks at how the Norwegian musical phenomenon rose, fell, and ended up in a strange state of limbo.
Early scenes in the film recount the way guitarist Pal Waaktaar, keyboardist Magne Furuholmen, and singer Morten Harket met, joined forces, and struggled to establish their sound. Incorporating Harket's amazing falsetto proved to be key to distinguishing themselves. “Take On Me” was written to exploit that talent, leading to one of the biggest, most rapid breakthroughs in pop music history. International fame followed, along with subsequent hits like “The Sun Always Shines on TV” and “Crying in the Rain.”
Even as the music went up the charts, internal strife plagued a-ha. There's no easy bad guy here, although Waaktaar's tendency to push hard for his creative vision made the other two feel like they had little say. Furuholmen also resented not getting songwriting credit for contributions he made. These factors are what caused them to break up, not only the first time, but also after every subsequent reunion. While the three men are tied together in their passion for the music, such interpersonal clashes have made the band's future hazy, at best.
Part of what makes a-ha: The Movie captivating is that it transcends the easy “conflict tore the band apart” clichés. This isn't a typical tale of drugs and ego. Instead, it shows how fame gradually chipped away at the unity between the members, all of whom only had the group's best interests at heart. With so much fame so quickly, a-ha had to grapple with whether to stay in the “Take On Me” lane or show what they were capable of by going broader. An inability to get on the same page at the same time created a situation where the music was good but the individuals making it were unhappy. More that anything, this is the heart of the documentary. When three people care deeply, yet in different ways, how can a group's identity remain firm?
Waaktaar, Furuholmen, and Harket are candid about both good and bad in their interviews. Archival footage, including home movies, helps tell the story. Director Thomas Robsahm and co-director Aslaug Holm cleverly use the same kind of pencil-drawn animation from the famous “Take On Me” video to transition between scenes or recreate memories. That helps the film capture the collective personality of the band. Of course, the music is great, too.
Perhaps the highest tribute I can pay a-ha: The Movie is to say that I felt like I knew these guys when it was over. I understood their points of view, how those POVs were intermittently at odds, and why their disparate personalities alternately created brilliance and contention. Far more substantive than a Behind the Music episode, the movie takes you inside the dynamic of a globally-popular act to examine their success, as well as the toll it took.
out of four
a-ha: The Movie is unrated, but contains brief strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 49 minutes.