A-Ha’s absolutely magical “Take on Me” and its stunning art-inspired music video ranks among my favorite songs of all time. I didn’t realize just how little I knew about the first Norweigan band to make it big worldwide, or how little of their catalogue I had explored ahead of time. The fact that I instantly opened my Spotify and downloaded most of A-Ha’s discography as soon as A-Ha: The Movie ended should speak volumes about its overall quality. If you are a longtime fan of the band itself (and the adorable, but humble heartthrob at the center, Morten Harket), I can only imagine the incredibly insightful and deliciously descriptive documentary having its most potent impact.
Beginning with a vibrant live performance of “Take on Me,” the credits greet us with music video imagery and concert footage. In 1974, we are introduced to Pal, who played drums made from cardboard rolls with plastic drumheads, and eventually became an incredible songwriter. Magne and Pal formed their first band together at only ten years old. Many flashbacks of their lives are portrayed in similar lush art style to Steve Barron’s “Take on Me” video. It wasn’t until they discovered their lead singer, Morten, performing with his band Souldier Blue at Club 7, that something truly special and unique began to form. Magne’s father died in a plane crash that Morten witnessed, giving the two men a strange embrace with destiny from the offset. At only age 15, the trio were interviewed and claimed “we’re gonna be international pop stars.”
Though Pal goes off to London, England with Magne insistent upon not returning until they became superstars, Morten manages to convince them to stay home in Oslo, Norway with their parents for the rest of the year. It took them until 1983 when they signed with WB Records to get their very first record deal. Their first and biggest single, “Take on Me,” already had its riff written at only 14 years old (but Pal insisted it sounded too commercial, and dubbed it “the JuicyFruit song”)—it only did well in Europe at first. It wasn’t until they teamed with a director for that absolutely iconic music video that they exploded in America, and A-Ha’s debut album subsequently sold 11 million copies. From their initial success, it was only up as A-Ha experimented with their sound countless times, from “Manhattan Skyline” to “Foot of the Mountain”. Doing a James Bond theme song and embracing punk roots with creative, varied albums, A-Ha is constantly evolving.
It’s not all happy song and dance. Tensions exist from early on between the trio; specifically, Pal and Morten clash quit frequently. An MTV Unplugged session in 2016 is charged with animosity. Songwriting credit is a frequent source of the friction in the group. A-Ha didn’t exactly lay down a blueprint when they started out, and Pal becomes very protective over his own words. Similarly, Morten grows tired of the monotony of displaying his full vocal range, and the pressures of becoming a sex symbol. Probing questions, including one reporter who literally asks Morten “would you strip down to the waist for me?” were completely shocking to me. I’d like to think this wouldn’t fly in today’s landscape. Magne laments that “Morten getting all the attention is comfy,” as his focus was far from the magazine-cover teeny bopper photoshoots in which they all had to participate.
I loved seeing the behind-the-scenes of A-Ha filming demos and meeting fans. Charting the band’s entire storied discography and examining their arguments and animosity towards one another was a very wise decision. Following their dream from struggling below the poverty line, A-Ha: The Movie is an endearing story of realizing your dreams and believing in them. The documentary feels deep-reaching, a truly honest portrayal of personalities and musical insight. While I wouldn’t say this exactly paints a promising future for the band, it does remind us that A-Ha once split up in 2010, embarking on a final world tour. They got together again 5 years later. If 2020 taught us anything, the resilience of creativity and friendship can weather any storm. I look forward to exploring more of A-Ha’s incredible body of work, as the ripples of their impact on the music industry can still be felt today.
A-Ha: The Movie screened at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival on June 12th.