The Eurovision Song Contest Semi-Final on May 12, 2004, saw the world première of a new ABBA video, Our Last Video Ever. In this exclusive interview for ABBA – The Site, director Calle Åstrand shared the secrets of the video that brought a doll-size version of ABBA to 100 million television screens across the world.
Telling a story
Over the years, ABBA’s role in pioneering the art of the rock video has been thoroughly documented. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that the production of promo clips became a standard music industry practice – by which time ABBA had already made more than 30 such films, and were about to go their separate ways. And now, 22 years after ABBA’s last official promo clip – for the ’Under Attack’ single – the four dolls in ’Our Last Video Ever’ bring an unexpected conclusion to ABBA’s illustrious rock video history.
’Our Last Video Ever’ is more than a regular music video: with its simple but effective plot, it takes the shape of a short film. Indeed, the challenge of not doing an ordinary music video, but getting the chance to tell a story, gave director Calle Åstrand the idea for making the video in the first place. Åstrand has a background in advertising and is the director of several award-winning commercials. Over the past few years, he has complemented this experience with writing and directing television series for Swedish television.
The idea for the ABBA video came to Calle Åstrand three years ago, during a conversation with a friend. ”He asked me why I had never made a rock video. I had done all those commercials and a TV series, so it would have been natural to try that as well. But I always felt rock videos were uninteresting – you just see the artists miming in front of a camera and I’m more interested in telling a story. ’But if you had the chance to tell a story in a rock video, which band would you choose?’ I replied that it would have to be a group like The Beatles or ABBA, or perhaps The Doors. He asked me if I wouldn’t consider choosing a band that was still active! But I said no.”
However, the seeds for an idea had been sown. If you were to do a brand new video with a band that doesn’t exist anymore, how on earth would you go about it? A week later, Calle Åstrand found himself on a location shoot in Prague and happened to pass by a shop-window. That’s where he came upon the solution to his problem. ”There were dolls in that shop-window, which made me think, ’Why not build a story around a doll version of one of those groups?’” Åstrand decided that ABBA would be the group most suitable for such a treatment, and contacted Björn Ulvaeus. The former ABBA member liked the idea, but asked the director to develop it a bit further. After some fine-tuning of the concept, Åstrand had come up with a story that featured the ABBA dolls seeking a record contract, auditioning their songs at the offices of a slimy record company mogul. Björn gave his approval and arranged a meeting with Universal Music, the owners of the ABBA catalogue.
Naturally, the other three former ABBA members were also informed about the idea. They were sent an outline of the video story and immediately gave the project their full support. However, despite their enthusiasm, it was to take a long time before all the practical issues surrounding the production had been resolved. For instance, when would be the right time to present this video to the world? Eventually, the answer became self-evident: the spring of 2004, upon the occasion of the 30th anniversary of ABBA’s Eurovision Song Contest victory with ’Waterloo’.
Meanwhile, Calle Åstrand was considering which songs to feature in the video. The original idea was to string together a number of familiar ABBA hits in a medley. ”The selection process wasn’t easy, because there are so many good tunes. But finally I had a shortlist of 10 songs, which I showed to Björn to get his opinion, and then we managed to get it down to four songs. I wanted ’Take A Chance On Me’, because that fits the story. The record company felt that ’Dancing Queen’ should be included, since it’s the most popular ABBA song. ’Waterloo’ was self-evident, because of the 30th anniversary. And then we had ’The Winner Takes It All’, which would also be good for the story.”
Once the songs had been selected, Björn and Benny pointed out a problem with putting them all into a medley: they were all in different tempos and different keys. ”The solution was to feature dialogue between the songs and make use of the different environments in the film,” recalls Calle Åstrand. ”Björn arranged for me to attend a performance of the Mamma Mia! musical in London, so that I could see how they had solved it.” In Mamma Mia! the dialogue leads almost seamlessly into the songs, which inspired Åstrand to try a similar approach for his manuscript. ”I read through each and every Abba lyric to find phrases that we could use as lines of dialogue. Björn also contributed a few ideas; his best was ’I do, I do, I do, I do, I do’.”
The dolls in the film were created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. The late Jim Henson was of course the brain behind the muppets used in Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. Today, his groundbreaking puppet work lives on in the company that bears his name. British comedian Rik Mayall, who sprang to fame in the 1980s television series The Young Ones, plays the record company mogul. The live cast otherwise consists of Swedish actors, most of whom are very famous in their home country.
Shooting of the main scenes took place in March 2004, at Independent Studios, south of Stockholm. “It was especially convenient to do the filming in a place that wasn’t too centrally located; it made it easier to keep the project a secret,” notes Calle Åstrand. Björn, Benny and Agnetha all visited the studios to film their cameo parts in the video. However, Frida was unable to fit a Stockholm visit into her schedule at the time of the main filming, so her scenes were shot in London in April, around the time of the celebrations for the 5th anniversary of the Mamma Mia! musical. But with the aid of a little technical trickery, Agnetha and Frida are actually seen together in the same shot – the first such picture to reach the public in almost two decades. ‘Our Last Video Ever’ otherwise marks the first time that all four members appear in the same film since the 1999 documentary The Winner Takes It All – The ABBA Story.
Other cameo contributions in the video come from some very famous names. “Björn thought it would be fun to have a few more ‘extras’ in the film, other than the ABBA members themselves, watching the band’s audition for the record company boss,” explains Calle Åstrand. The result was that we now see Cher and infamous Iron Maiden “member”, Eddie – himself a doll – in the video.
The biggest technical challenge to the filmmakers was figuring out how to make vintage footage of the “real” ABBA interact with the dolls and the live actors. A scene of the ABBA members standing in an elevator, extracted from their 1977 film ABBA – The Movie, was used for this purpose. However, no clean shot of just the four members was available. “The actor who played the Australian reporter in the movie was in each and every scene, so we had to remove him, which was incredibly difficult. Also, we had to match the quality of the film stock used in those days with the picture quality of today.”
But those difficulties were indeed overcome, and after an intense editing period, ‘Our Last Video Ever’ was finally ready to be screened. Throughout the making of the film, everybody involved were keen to maintain a spirit of irreverent fun – not least the former ABBA members themselves. Says Calle Åstrand, “When Agnetha saw what her own doll looked like, she laughed and said, ‘I look like Miss Piggy!’ She thought that was a lot of fun. And Frida was delighted when we showed her what we had filmed so far.” The male half of the group was just as keen about this light-hearted approach. “One of the first things Björn and Benny said was, ‘The film mustn’t be pretentious. Make sure that it’s fun and tongue-in-cheek – you’ve got to be allowed to laugh at it!’ And I believe that’s what we accomplished.”
Note: When “Our Last Ever Video” was released on DVD, the title was changed to “The Last Video”.
Photographs: Copyright Joakim Strömholm.