In our recent conversation about the Village People movie Can’t Stop the Music, I asked Britnee if it’s possible to make a legitimately-great disco musical or if the two genres were fundamentally irreconcilable. Britnee answered with a resounding “Yes!” but I remained somewhat unconvinced. The repetition inherent to disco makes a musical film’s plot feel like its idling in a way that a more narrative-intense music genre wouldn’t. Can’t Stop the Music’s musical numbers were strange Village People music video-type interjections that barely interacted with the film’s completely unnecessary plot involving Steve Guttenberg’s DJ career and some out-of-place heterosexual shenanigans. The movie’s disco & plot mixed just about as cohesively as oil & water.
ABBA: The Musical brilliantly sidesteps the problem by not even attempting to mix its plot with its disco. The movie does tell a half-assed story of about country music DJ assigned to interview the Swedish pop group on their Australian tour, but it’s entirely inconsequential. Early conversations between the DJ and his station manager are periodically interrupted with crowds chanting “We want ABBA!”, voicing exactly what the audience is thinking. The movie delivers the goods early on, full live performances of the band’s hit songs running almost continuously from about ten minutes in. ABBA: The Musical is essentially a concert film in disguise, the Australian DJ’s story arc serving mostly as filler. Between the live performances, he conducts street interviews with fans, reads about the group member’s individual personalities in magazines, and struggles to make his way backstage at their concerts. Where Can’t Stop the Music made the band it was marketing second to its superficial plot, ABBA: The Movie is smart to do the exact opposite, always putting the band first & the fiction second.
Honestly, Can’t Stop the Music is a much more interesting film (especially in its choice to obscure both its subject’s homosexuality and the disco scene’s rampant drug use), but ABBA: The Movie isn’t without its own strange subtext. There are some questionable inclusions in the film’s attempt to push its product. If they were trying to make the group seem hip to kids, it may not have been the best idea to include street interviews where parents praise the music as “nice & clean”. In direct contradiction, there’s a lot made of singer Agnetha Faltskog’s award-winning ass, which is talked about & filmed so much it’s easy to think of her as the Nikki Minaj of her time. My favorite oddball choice is the endless parade of ABBA merchandise (hats, socks, buttons, beer mugs, picture books, etc.) on display while the group sings the anti-capitalist anthem “Money Money Money.” Then there’s an early press conference in which ABBA complains about the grueling ordeal of touring in a movie that glorifies their life on the road. For the most part, though, the film really does live up to the parental-friendly “nice & clean” image the band intentionally cultivated, making little attempt to mine anything under the surface.
There’s not much going on here besides the idea that ABBA is awesome and people who paid to watch their movie mostly just want to watch them play their music. It’s a honest concept I can get behind. Although the film may lack the more bizarre connotations of Can’t Stop the Music, it’s very easy to get swept up in its straightforward “ABBA is awesome!” sentiment when the group is performing killer pop tunes like “Waterloo”, “S.O.S.”, “Mamma Mia” and, of course, “Dancing Queen”. It’s downright fascinating how thick the 70s cheese is here, considering it was released the same year punk starting poking its head out from dive bars and terrified parents across the world. It’s a flawed, corny film, but it’s one that delivers the product it promises. Of course the Australian country music DJ asides are mostly inconsequential, but they don’t overpower the band the same way the plot did in Can’t Stop the Music and they also help to break up the more laborious task a full-on concert movie from the group would’ve presented. All I really wanted from an ABBA movie was some great ABBA musical performances, which it delivered in abundance.