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Bergman Island - Mia Wasikowska
Bergman Island, Mia Hansen-Løve (2021)

Why ABBA is the most cinematic band ever

As ABBA’s comeback album Voyage drops, here’s a brief history of the band’s cinematic highpoints, from ABBA: The Movie to Bergman Island, via Paul Verhoeven and Spike Lee

In Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island, Amy (Mia Wasikowska) cannot resist the lure of ABBA. From the smoking area, Amy overhears “The Winner Takes It All”, then drags Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie), the object of her affection, to the dance floor for a singalong. But the 1980 ballad, often deemed the Swedish pop group’s defining single, can’t be executed alone. The chorus, its melodies overlapping, requires at least two performers – it’s where, in the studio, Anni-Frid Lyngstad joins Agnetha Fältskog on vocals. After bouncing up and down to the verse, eyes closed, hands on heart, Amy mimes the “Someone way down here/Loses someone dear” line and realises that Joseph has abandoned her. Cue the next lyric in the background as Amy runs out: “But tell me does she kiss/Like I used to kiss you?

In short, ABBA are an inherently cinematic band. They sing of love, heartbreak, and emotions that befit third-act climaxes. Their instrumentations are timeless, their melodies bypass language barriers; an ABBA needle-drop, as in Bergman Island, can be a plot point in itself. The group’s lyrics not only refer to their two in-band marital breakups and existential crises (“All I do is eat and sleep and sing/Wishing every show was the last show”), they possess their own mystery and narratives. For instance, on their 1977 tour, they performed a 25-minute plot-driven musical on stage called The Girl with the Golden Hair, during which the third song was “Thank You for the Music” (hence the “I am so lucky/I am the girl with golden hair” lyric).

It’s telling that ABBA’s comeback album, Voyage, their first since 1981’s The Visitors, is really to promote a VR concert in which their “Abbatars” – digitally de-aged projections of the foursome – do their own version of Scorsese’s The Irishman. Before their breakup, ABBA had only done around 100 live shows, preferring to engage with fans through music videos and short films. Starting with their breakthrough singles, “Ring Ring” and Waterloo”, both videos directed by Lasse Hallström, ABBA deliberated over their music’s visual component before it was fashionable to do so – and, speaking of Bergman, is the “Knowing Me Knowing You” video meant to be a tribute to Persona?

While ABBA’s relationship with movies will forever be, let’s face it, tainted by Mamma Mia! and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again – both perversely watchable, like shovelling McDonald’s into your mouth and trying not to throw up in shame – the band’s music has graced so many memorable movies, it’s begging for its own film festival. If not at Fårö (aka Bergman Island), then in Viggsö (aka ABBA Island), where the group wrote and recorded most of their hits. Here’s a brief history of those cinematic highpoints, charting the path from ABBA: The Movie to Bergman Island via Paul Verhoeven and Spike Lee.

Bergman Island is out now in the US, and will be released theatrically by MUBI in the UK in 2022. ABBA’s Voyage is out now