Since their formation 39 years ago a-ha have established themselves as the most famous and successful Norwegian pop band of all time. Now, their story is to be told in a major new documentary, a-ha: The Movie, which received its world premiere last week at the Tribeca Film Festival.
In this interview, a-ha: the movie director Thomas Robsahm talks about his love of a-ha and how he brought his dream project to life…
Your former project as a director was a series about Norwegian punk. Is this a film about your guilty pleasure from the 80s?
Things moved fast in those days, so I was into punk in 1978, new wave in 1979, ska in 1980, synths in 1981, and by the time I heard a-ha in 1984, I was in a band which also was synth-based with drum machines. Our music was darker, but bands like The Human League and Soft Cell inspired both my band and a-ha, so we were not that far from each other.
Take On Me came out the first time in 1984. I was not 100% convinced, but when The Sun Always Shines on TV was released later there was no doubt: This is the best music ever made in Norwegian pop. And they are still the best, they are simply in their own league.
How did the project come about?
Ever since I saw Let It Be about The Beatles when I was 10, I’ve always wanted to make a film about a band making a record. I almost got a project like that started in the early 90s, but it didn’t happen. After seeing Some Kind Of Monster about Metallica, I started thinking about it again, and by that time I had had a premiere of a feature where both Morten and Magne attended.
Then many years later, in 2009, Magne attended another premiere of a film I produced, and he complimented me sincerely about the film music I made for it (we did not have any money left in postproduction, so I just had to do it myself). A few months later, I asked him if I could film the recording of a-ha’s new album.
He was positive, but there was only one problem; they were gonna split up… Of course, they came back together after five years, and we started filming in 2016. But they still haven’t recorded a new album, so the film is a bit different than I imagined.
Do you remember when you first heard Take On Me? Did you instantly know it was a hit?
I heard it on the radio and recorded it. I did not think it would become a world hit, no… But I liked it.
Can you describe the Norwegian music scene in the early 80s when a-ha started?
Before punk I felt it was horrible. I didn’t listen to Norwegian music. It was mostly Eurovision Song Contest and cover versions of American and English songs. Now as a grown-up I’ve discovered there was some good music before punk, but not much.
What has a-ha meant for Norwegian pop culture?
What’s so great about a-ha?
They make beautiful, melancholic music with great lyrics and the singer… Well, it’s Morten Harket. For me, they are one of the best bands ever in pop history and I’m saying that as half-Italian.
What attracted you with making this film?
I like to make life difficult for myself. It’s a habit.
Besides music, what’s the film about?
It’s about having big, impossible dreams together when you’re young and when the dream actually comes true, all the problems start. So, you get the story of how the band got successful and how they handled it.
You have followed them for a long time, besides that what was your strategy as a filmmaker?
I tried my best to get them to record new music, because I know there’s still so many great songs in them.
You have stated that your ambition with the film was to have them make new songs again. Do you think they will ever record anything together again?
Yes, they’re all making music all the time, so at one point they will get in the studio again. I only wish it had happened during the filming.
Almost everybody in the world knows Take On Me, and it’s recently been used in everything from La La Land to Deadpool. What’s the magic with that song?
The drum programming, the synth riff, the verses, the chorus, the middle eight, the music video… Even the lyrics with simple, nice lines like “Slowly learning that life is OK”.
It was also very courageous to be a Norwegian band and insist on releasing a song which has a title that is grammatically wrong. They were stubborn from the very beginning.
Is there a question you didn’t dare to ask them?
“Can I produce your next album?”
How would you describe Pål, Morten and Magne, as persons and artists?
I really like them all three. They are really nice people, and I know people in the film industry with bigger egos. But the band as a whole is quite difficult to deal with…
The wife of the guitarist Pål Waaktaar, Lauren Savoy, says in the film: “They all need a shrink, both individually and as a band.” Was the film your way of having a therapy?
I tried. And failed.
Not many bands stick together for 40 years, what has kept them together?
The love of music, money and more success.
Are you surprised they’re still are such a popular live band all over the world?
Yes, because they’re bigger than many bands you would think are bigger. Since a-ha are not British or from the US, they’re very underrated in the music press. I mean, they’re much, much better than Depeche Mode…
A lot of great contemporary bands and artists, such as Coldplay and The Weeknd, recognise a-ha as a big inspiration…
If you don’t like music from the 80s you listened to the wrong artists… When you’re a teenager and grow up with a certain music it naturally inspires you and a-ha were so big in the UK and had a massive hit in the US, so naturally many bands were inspired by them, including U2, Oasis, Kanye West, Keane, Weezer and Echo & The Bunnymen.
Ian McCulloch of the Bunnymen even said to me that they were better than The Smiths. That’s pushing it, but still.
What’s your personal favourite a-ha song?
I have to say three: Memorial Beach, Stay On These Roads and Hunting High And Low. But now I already regret not including Living A Boys Adventure Tale, Summer Moved On or The Sun Always Shines On TV. Tomorrow I would probably say I’ve Been Losing You, Manhattan Skyline and Lifelines… Oh, I almost forgot Take On Me.
Can pop music change the world?
Of course. Nelson Mandela would never have gotten out of prison without that song.
If you could be a pop star for a day, who would that be?
I’ve already been that. It’s much more fun than being a hustler, which is what we need to be in the film industry.
What’s your dream project as a film director?
To make a film about a-ha recording an album.
a-ha: The Movie doesn’t yet have a UK release date.