Growing up, my sister used to blast her records in our family living room. She’d walk back and forth as she’d listen, a ritual I guessed allowed her to really take in the music. I recall her playing “S.O.S.” by ABBA repeatedly, its pop fizz undercut by the melancholy of the lyrics. One of my favorite things to do would be to sneak up on her as she paced and scare the living bejeezus out of her.
As a kid, I was greatly influenced by my older siblings, and I took quite an interest in this Swedish supergroup; one of the bestselling artists of all time. I loved Agnetha’s straight blonde hair, gorgeous blue eyes and that piercing, aching quality to her singing. Frida, with the curly red hair and huskier voice, while equally as stunning, was the cheeky, saucy one to her co-vocalist’s often more somber approach. Surrounded by their husbands, Björn and Benny, who wrote the brilliant songs, they all wore outlandish, skin-tight costumes while delivering some of the most iconic songs in music history. No wonder the queer community embraced them. With their Scandinavian beauty, bouncy, infectious melodies, and a glimmer of something else going on below the surface, ABBA seemed born to entertain us outsiders.
It would take me years to realize that beneath those nonstop pop hooks, they explored intensely adult subjects. Think of “Mamma Mia”, which seems to contain one earworm after another you could bop around to forever. Still, listen closer and you have a song about someone desperate to get back with their cheating partner. “The Winner Takes it All” may have an infectious beat, but let’s face it, ABBA are educating us on the devastation of divorce. These two formerly married couples know from whereof they sing. This unexpected mix of effervescence and sadness led me to the conclusion that ABBA are my favorite pop band of all time. I had the opportunity to get tickets to see them live in concert in 1979, but being young and broke at the time, I opted out and thought I’d catch them on their next tour. Then they called it quits and, well, say goodbye to that dream.
Consider my surprise and elation when they reunited all these years later to release a brand new (and first ever Grammy nominated) album, Voyage, and accompanying show. But being the iconoclasts that they are, this wouldn’t be just any concert. With all of the members now in their 70s—they simply didn’t want to hit the road, and God knows they have nothing to prove—ABBA have broken new ground once again. In collaboration with George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), the band gathered together in a studio to have themselves motion-captured as they performed their set list. Afterwards, the animators de-aged their digitized likenesses to return them to their prime, circa that fateful year of 1979. This would then get projected onto a giant LED screen in a purpose-built, 3,000 person capacity arena in London. Add a live 10-piece band playing to the side of the stage along with an integrated light show, and you’ll find yourself convinced you’re witnessing the real band returned to their former glory.
Needless to say, I could not get a ticket to the U.K. fast enough, and just as my sister passed along her love for ABBA to me, I paid it forward by taking my English nephew and his wife. You may wonder why I didn’t take my sister, but she lives in Australia, which presented a coordinating nightmare. So after a long flight across the pond, I found myself reunited with family in East London to watch music history get taken to the next level.
Excuse me while I pick my jaw up off the floor. Yes, this is a staggering achievement. With not a bad stadium-style seat to be found and a large dance floor below, one can choose their own adventure. We were glad to be raised up and set back a bit as it allowed us to take in the lighting effects and the giant scope of this event.
When you enter the arena, a wintry forest fills the screen, setting a bucolic and yes, Swedish tone. Any type of recording devices are strictly prohibited from this point forward with violators informed they could be ejected from the theater. How absolutely refreshing it was to attend a concert with everyone forced to engage with the music instead of uploading it to their followers. Extra points go to the audience members who dressed up in their best spangly or boa-centric outfits or the groups of friends who you could tell were forming unforgettable memories with this experience. People danced, swayed, hugged and cried with those they loved.
Then the lights went down and there they were. I won’t spoil the set list—a wonderful combination of the hits and some surprising deep cuts—but I will discuss how it felt to be there. They did not look like holograms. These ABBA-tars, as they’ve been dubbed, cast shadows on the stage. Their sequins shimmered brightly and when they sang and moved, you felt that they were truly three-dimensional and very much in the room with you. Only when the screen would display close-ups, as one sees at most arena shows, could you detect a bit of that uncanny valley sensation, but those were merely fleeting moments. Because they recorded themselves, you feel the heart and emotion in these performances. Sure, they could look a bit dead-eyed or have jerky movements here and there, but haven’t we all?
The word “astounding” does not begin to describe this. To sell that live feeling, each member gets a chance to speak to the audience, sometimes hilariously and sometimes movingly. Benny shouting, “Hello, London!” at the outset tickled me endlessly. Although they’ve used the original vocal recordings and some of the existing instrumentation, the live band augments this, giving these classics a punchier quality. The talented backing band get the occasional projected close-ups as well, further convincing you that everything is happening in real time.
Every song gets presented differently, taking you on quite a journey. Some feature the band as life-sized figures where others turn them into giants. A couple of songs get the anime treatment and literally turn the quartet into bronze Gods. The lights on the screen have been synchronized with those built into the arena to dazzling effect. A particular transition from one song to another shows the women up close from overhead with the shot suddenly swooping down and going impossibly wide to fill up the entire screen. I wanted to hit rewind a dozen times on that moment alone. I kept turning to my nephew and his wife, both of whom seemed blown away. By the end, you’ll know you’ve been on an emotional journey. More than just the nostalgia of it all, you really come to feel these songs, happy and sad. You may also find yourself moved by the fact that despite the double divorces and the certain trauma that must have come with that, these four extremely talented musicians have come together again to reinvent that magic. Not known for doing little more than side-step shuffling in their day, the women sometimes used dance doubles for this performance, which brings incredible energy to the upbeat songs while still staying somewhat true to their actual movements. On some of the ballads, a gorgeous stillness prevailed, with one song using the different phases of a solar eclipse as the only movement you see. It’s hypnotic. I’m so grateful that I got to finally see ABBA live, or more accurately, I saw them live at their absolute best.
You don’t even have to be an ABBA fan to be awestruck. The technology alone should be enough to blow anyone away. Could Elton John, Madonna, or any number of living legends be far behind? Come on Stevie Wonder! Call George Lucas right now!
Although this event is currently only in London, the arena itself can ship anywhere. I understand other locations are being explored. Additionally, the band recorded more songs than are currently in the set list, and that the ILM wizards have enough 1s and 0s on ABBA to animate any additional songs they choose. All of this makes the idea of repeat viewings quite appealing. I’ll keep my passport up to date. Who knows? Maybe some day I’ll find myself in Australia. This time, I’ll happily sneak up on my sister and surprise her with ABBA Voyage tickets. I hope it’ll make her cry tears of joy instead of jumping in fear.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Voyage is currently playing at the ABBA Arena in London. Tickets and information available at ABBAvoyage.com.