“Are you watching the ABBA special”, my friend Yvette texted me tonight. “Watching it? I’m in it, briefly”, I told her. There’s a scene very near the beginning where, if you squint, you’ll see me standing in a crowd at the opening of ABBAWORLD. I can’t remember if it’s the Sydney opening or the Melbourne opening, as the documentary tends to combine the two as if they were one.
I’ve known about this documentary for a number of years. Matti Crocker’s long-term plan for a documentary about ABBA fans has been on the radar for about seven or eight years. Along the way it’s gone through a number of different iterations. Matti and his film-partner, Bec, have probably filmed hundreds of hours of footage of ABBA fans in all parts of the world. There’s footage from the International ABBA Day in the Netherlands, at the opening of Kristina från Duvemåla in New York, at the opening of ABBAWORLD in both Sydney and Melbourne, and at many other locations.
The real dilemma with so much footage is how you cut it down to just fifty-something minutes of television. It’s the age-old dilemma of what story can be told well within a short space of time, compared to how much footage you have. In the end, they’ve gone with a narrative about the story of ABBA in Australia, with three distinct parts. They could have told the story of ABBA, as seen through magazines and television coverage. They could have told the story of ABBA fans travelling around the world for just a glimpse of the former band members. They could have sought to interview members of ABBA themselves.
But in the end, they’ve chosen to go with a narrative about the story of ABBA in Australia, as seen through the eyes of fans and some Australian celebrities. And it’s a good story with a beginning, a middle and an end. In the beginning, there was the Eurovision Song Contest, and ABBA’s chance for international fame. The film then goes on to tell the story of how, when the rest of the world (well not completely) wasn’t all that interested in ABBA, Australia embraced them. Dramatically. The film tries to make sense of this in terms of Australia’s cultural identity in the 70s, the introduction of Countdown, colour television, good publicists and so on. The right thing at the right time, in essence.
Then, for a bunch of reasons, Australia loses interest in ABBA. A couple of years ago in a bar in Stockholm, Sidetrack, I was quizzed by a guy I met about why I was in Sweden. “Tell the truth, it’s ABBA”, he said to me. “You Australians loved ABBA, and then you abandoned them”, he went on to say, and to ask, “Why did you abandon them”?. Yes, abandon them, we did, though not myself and other hardcore fans. And that’s where the “end” of the story comes, with reflections on why, thirty years after they split up, there’s still a bunch of hardcore fans in Australia. It also reflects on the turnaround in public opinion, where Australians have forgotten that “we abandoned ABBA”, and how it’s reasonably okay to admit, now, “I’m an ABBA fan”.
The documentary isn’t perfect. There are large parts of the story that are skimmed over, such as the role of the gay community in supporting ABBA through those “dark days”. There’s also the fact my friends Graeme and Grant are no longer ABBA fans due to some legal action taken against them by Universal Music. Graeme features prominently (he says he doesn’t) in the program. There’s a whole OTHER story to be told. But the reality is, they had just 50-something minutes of television to play with. And also, for the general public, there’s a whole lot of the story they wouldn’t find interesting.
I thought it was really well done, and I enjoyed it very much. It was a unique and interesting story, and it rated through the roof when it first screened on Wednesday night, winning its timeslot. The response led to a repeat performance tonight, or “encore screening” as they call them now.