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ABBA:  THE DEFINITIVE COLLECTION

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, Agnetha Faltskog, Frida Lyngstad
Director:  Lassé Hallstrom
Audio:  Dolby 2.0
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Universal Music & VI
Features:  See Review
Length:  136 Minutes
Release Date:  July 30, 2002

"Chiquitita, you and I cry but the sun is still in the sky and shining above you

Let me hear you sing once more like you did before

Try once more, like you did before...sing a new song, Chiquitita..."

Film ***

Rock music has been the lucky genre for many great collaborations and bands whose music yielded a greater artistic statement than the sum of the parts could have ever achieved.  I have always thought that if Paul McCartney had not met a very drunk John Lennon at a picnic, John would have lived his life in prison and Paul would have played piano in some pub somewhere, leaving the world without its greatest musical act. 

Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson also met when they were young men.  They were established pop professionals but they had already gone about as far as any Scandinavian band had.  Their girlfriends and eventual wives Agnetha Faltskog and Frida Lyngstad were not even featured on their earliest recordings, on which the two men produced their original music.  All four were well known in Sweden already, so ABBA was something of an all-star pop band, which decided to take the plunge into the English-speaking pop world.  

Benny and Bjorn were definitely two of the first songwriters who also produced their own recordings, with occasional lyric contributions from their manager, Stig Anderson.  When they joined forces to record English language songs, they became the biggest band of the 1970s, and Guinness listed them as the best-selling active band while they were together.  They said that America was their only failure, since even though everyone knows “Dancing Queen” and their albums did sell moderately well, they were actually bigger than the Beatles in the rest of the world, especially in Australia, where at one time one in ten citizens owned an ABBA record.  I suspect that America has always loved drums and guitar bands such as Led Zeppelin more than a keyboard and vocal oriented group like ABBA, who were able to have many big hits before disco and then adapt their sound to the disco beat without losing their identity.

These videos and their music were a huge influence on the groups of the 1980s British invasion and the myriad of Australian groups like Men at Work, INXS, and of course other Scandinavian groups such as Roxette.  The songs have aged very well and are not as dated as the Carpenters and other 70s pop bands, which I think was due to the total control the band had over their songwriting, performances, and overall production.  George Martin was not needed here; the Swedes did just fine.  While their songs are not necessarily as complex or groundbreaking as those of the Beatles, they were so well written and impeccably sung that in my opinion no other recordings of their songs top the originals.  The soundtrack of Mama Mia!  is wonderful, but can't touch the originals.  The closest act to pull it off is probably the A Teens, who should be commended for updating the ABBA sound and just about pulling off the same vocal quality.

The other thing to remember about ABBA in general is that English was not their first language.  It is amazing enough to have such huge success and music that has aged so well, let alone to have to work hard enough to do it in a foreign language, an experience shared by opera singers.

Considering that MTV did not even exist yet, these videos were done for modest budgets but were money well spent.  We also finally get to see who sings which songs, which is tough to determine sometimes.  Each of the girls could sing wonderfully, but when they sang together they had a special sound that has never been duplicated.  Agnetha has the brighter voice but Frida has an incredible range and sang more of the hits than I realized.  But sadly, after nine albums and two divorces, ABBA went their separate ways and has never reunited.  Many of their best later songs such as “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and “The Winner Takes it All” are about breakups, much as Fleetwood Mac produced many of their best songs as their relationships were crumbling.  Supposedly ABBA was offered a billion dollars to reunite for the millennium and they turned it down.  I guess it is not all about “Money, Money, Money”...

“Bang-a-Boomerang” is definitely a silly song, but it is sung so well and the video is so fun that it is hard to resist.  And the girls look so good in silhouette in “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” that anyone would want to marry them!  Agnetha in particular introduced the world to the Scandinavian blonde archetype with perfect skin and a cheery attitude.

According to the booklet that accompanies the disc, the primary reason the group made these videos was to promote the music and avoid the long grueling tours which they had all done at one time or another before ABBA.  In all their years together they only toured for a few months all put together.  While they could put on a good show, they left that to groups like The Who and Led Zeppelin who lived to perform and whose studio recordings did not always catch their true sound.  The other obvious obstacle was the huge travel expense and time difference of traveling from Sweden to Australia (a thirty hour trip) and the USA.

Most of the videos are just fun instead of kitschy, but ironically one of the silliest ones is for their biggest hit, “Dancing Queen”.  They are still better than most disco-era films and they are such a nice-looking bunch that it is easy to like the videos, most of which were directed by Lasse Hallstrom, who went on to direct movies such as What's Eating Gilbert Grape and The Cider House Rules.

There are many good ABBA tracks that only diehard fans will know such as “That's Me” and “When I Kissed the Teacher”, both from the excellent Arrival album.   Many of these videos were made because many B-sides were big hits in Japan and other countries starved for good popular music.  One of my favorites, “The Name of the Game”, is mediocre visually but does include the longer version of the song with the second verse.  This version is not on the Abba Gold CD, so fans of the song will like this DVD just for the music's sake.

Another reason to spring for this video is the final one, “Under Attack”, a track from the never-completed Opus Ten.  It is a great song but was not released until ABBA Gold Volume 2.  Even as it all fell apart, they could still write and sing great songs.  At the end of the video they slowly walk out of a warehouse into the garish light of day, walking away from their run as one of the biggest bands in the world.

Complete songlist:

1. WATERLOO
2. RING RING
3. MAMA MIA
4. SOS
5. BANG-A-BOOMERANG
6. I DO, I DO, I DO, I DO, I DO
7. FERNANDO
8. DANCING QUEEN
9. MONEY, MONEY, MONEY
10. KNOWING ME, KNOWING YOU
11. THAT'S ME
12. THE NAME OF THE GAME
13. TAKE A CHANCE ON ME
14. EAGLE
15. ONE MAN, ONE WOMAN
16. THANK YOU FOR THE MUSIC
17. SUMMER NIGHT CITY
18. CHIQUITITA
19. DOES YOUR MOTHER KNOW
20. VOULEZ VOUS
21. GIMME! GIMME! GIMME! (A MAN AFTER MIDNIGHT)
22. ON AND ON AND ON
23. THE WINNER TAKES IT ALL
24. SUPER TROUPER
25. HAPPY NEW YEAR
26. WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE
27. ONE OF US
28. HEAD OVER HEELS
29. THE DAY BEFORE YOU CAME
30. UNDER ATTACK
31. WHEN I KISSED THE TEACHER
32. ESTOY SONANDO (I HAVE A DREAM)
33. FELICIDAD (HAPPY NEW YEAR)
34. NO HAY A QUIEN CULPAR (WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE)
35. DANCING QUEEN (AT THE OPERA)
...

Audio ***

Only Dolby 2.0, so no four stars from me, but since their albums were recently given the 24-bit remastering treatment, those version of the songs were smartly synched with these videos, an excellent idea which more companies need to use.

Video ***

No flaws in any of the videos that I can see (contrary to some reviews of this disc), which change interestingly with the music as the years go on.   As the music gets edgier, the videos get more serious too.  Many of the visual effects are very dated such as the TV effects in “Eagle”, but for their time they were very innovative and of course the music is excellent, so this DVD is enjoyable even with the TV turned off. 

Features *1/2

The bonus tracks are “When I Kissed the Teacher” (which features Benny wearing a Miami Dolphins shirt) and Spanish version of “I Have a Dream”, “Happy New Year” and “When All Is Said and Done”.  They also lip-synch “Dancing Queen” at the Royal Swedish Opera.  There is also a nice self-paced picture gallery with their songs as the soundtrack.  No interviews?  No TV appearances?  No commentaries at all?  Could have been better.

Summary:

Using videos to promote their music years before MTV, ABBA was able to promote their golden sound all over the world and cement their place in rock history, and these videos chronicle not just their changing sound bit the changes in video production itself over the years.