Parky At the Pictures (20/5/2022)
(Reviews of Pissarro: Father of Impressionism; Tosh; and a-ha: The Movie)
Even if we presume that cinema-going is a thing again, the UK's various streaming platforms are still doing sterling work. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation are all ready to keep you entertained.
Whether you opt for the big-screen experience or some quality home time, enjoy and stays safe.
PISSARRO: FATHER OF IMPRESSIONISM.
It's always significant when Exhibition on Screen releases a new film. But, before we look at the 30th title in the series, we should congratulate Seventh Art Productions on the BAFTA it won for My Childhood, My Country (2021). Completing the Afghan trilogy commenced by The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan (2004) and The Boy Mir (2011), this affecting documentary reveals that Mir Hussein has come through two decades of conflict and turmoil and is now the father of three and a news cameraman in Kabul. Given that the footage was recorded before the Taliban returned to power, one can only hope that Mir can stay safe and continue to thrive.
Open to the public since 1683, The Ashmolean in Oxford is the world's oldest museum. It is currently hosting an exhibition dedicated to Camille Pissarro that draws on its extensive in-house archive. But, in addition to 80 works by the Danish-French master, the show also includes 40 more by members of his circle, including eight paintings that have never been seen in this country before. This provides the inspiration for Pissarro: Father of Impressionism.
In an opening caption, Paul Cézanne declares that `we learned everything we do from Pissarro' in hailing him `the first Impressionist'. As we see `Self-Portrait' (1873), Colin Harrison, the Senior Curator of European Art at the Ashmolean, concurs. As does Agnes Valencak, the museum's Head of Exhibitions, who notes that the younger members of the group looked up to Camille Pissarro, who was forever experimenting with new ideas.
With his long beard giving him an avuncular air, Pissarro was noted for his warmth, integrity and altruism and many artists benefited from his generosity and patronage. Yet, Josef Helfenstein, the Director of the Kunstmuseum in Basel, notes that he was an anarchist who disliked hierarchical structures. Over Claude Monet's `The Boulevard de Pointoise At Argenteuil' (1875), Claire Durand-Ruel reveals that Pissarro liked to explore different mediums and ranked alongside Edgar Degas when it came to drawing.
She claims Pissarro deserves to be much better known, as he was so versatile, while Harrison commends his individuality and restraint. He suggests that works like `Père Melon Sawing Wood' (1879) demonstrate that Pissarro was more level-headed than his contemporaries and less prone to `loud gestures and noisy paint'. Ashmolean director Alexander Sturgis claims he was so difficult to pin down because he was so open-hearted and receptive to others.
As the museum holds the artist's archive, it has over 8000 letters and more than 50 paintings by Pissarro himself, as well as by his children and grandchildren. However, this exhibition has been co-curated by colleagues in Basel, where items like `A Corner of L'Hermitage Pontoise' (1878) are held. Assistant curator Olga Osadtschy considers Pissarro to have been a prototype networker, who came to France as an outsider and yet held the Impressionist movement together.
Pissarro was born on 10 July 1830 in Charlotte Amalie on the island of St Thomas, which was the part of the Danish West Indies that was renamed the US Virgin Islands. His father was a Jewish merchant, but Pissarro was an agnostic and received an evangelical education prior to being sent to the Savary Academy at the age of 12. After six years, he returned to St Thomas. But a chance meeting with a Danish artist (`Portrait of Fritz Melbye', 1852-54) changed Pissarro's outlook and they went on sketching expeditions together, which resulted in items like `A Creek in St Thomas' (1856).
In 1852, they travelled to Venezuela, where he produced `Bananeros' (1852-54) and `Landscape With Figures By a River' (c.1853-54). Valencak speaks about the freedom Pissarro felt to be away from home, while Osadtschy notes that he started depicting ordinary people going about their everyday chores, which would be one of his trademarks in such paintings as `Two Women Chatting By the Sea' (1856) and `Three Riders and Horses Galloping on a Plain' (1857-58).
Arriving in Paris in time for the 1855 Exposition Universelle, Pissarro discovered pictures like Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot's `The Port of La Rochelle' (1851). He acknowledged Corot's influence on early canvases like `Barges on the Seine' (c.1863), although Harrison also mentions the influence of Barbizon School artists like Charles-François Daubigny (`River Scene With Ducks', 1859), who also became a close friend and tried to help Pissarro and his fellow tyros gain acceptance by the Salon.
Over Henri Gervex's `A Session of the Painting Jury' (c.1855) and François-Auguste Biard's `Four O'clock At the Salon' (1847), Helfenstein explains how the system works and how it helped and hindered those chosen to exhibit. Jelle Imkampe reveals that Pissarro was unimpressed by this lottery and attended the Académie Suisse, where he made the acquaintance of Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne. Writer Émile Zola praised works like `Jallais Hill, Pontoise' (1867) and `The Village Screened By Trees' (c.1869) in stating that he had the talent of an honest man.
Harrison opines that Pissarro rejected bourgeois mores and attempted to push the boundaries of aesthetics and taste with each painting. Yet, for all his rebellious instincts, he was a devoted family man and married Julie Vellay (`Madame Pissarro Sewing', 1860) in spite of his parents objecting to him marrying a near-illiterate household servant. They were opposites in many ways, but she stuck with him as he fought his artistic battles and often struggled to provide for their eight children. Over `Woman Reading' (1860), we hear an extract from a letter Julie wrote to Pissarro in Paris, in which she expresses her bewilderment at why he lived such an unpredictable experience.
Prevented from fighting in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 by his mother, Pissarro fled to London, along with Monet and dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. As we see Monet's `Green Park, London' (1870), we hear an extract from a letter in which Pissarro recalls seeing the works by John Constable, John Crome and J.M.W. Turner that influenced paintings like `Fox Hill, Upper Norwood, Effect of Snow' (1870) and `The Crystal Palace' (1871).
In other correspondence, however, he complains about finding buyers and his hopes that Durand-Ruel could help him at the German Gallery in New Bond Street. Here, he sold pieces like Daubigny's `The Banks of the Oise' (1863) and paid 400 francs for Pissarro's `The Road to Sydenham' (1871). They all returned to France after the war, however, with Pissarro taking up residence in Pontoise after he discovered that Prussian troops had wilfully destroyed the 20 years worth of pictures he had left in his studio at Louveciennes.
Many of the figures in Henri Fantan-Latour's `Studio At Les Batignolles' (1870) started to come into vogue and formed the Society of Independent Artists to exhibit and sell their works from 35 Boulevard des Capucines. Pissarro was among the group and became the only artist to feature in all eight Impressionist exhibitions, with works like
`Landscape Near Pontoise' (1872). Harrison claims there wouldn't have been such a collective approach without Pissarro, although the movement took its name from Jules-Antoine Castagnary's critique of Monet's `Impression, Sunrise' (1872).
Although he was closest to Monet (`Wild Poppies At Argenteuil', 1873), Pissarro's shared love of engraving and printmaking meant he also got on well with Degas (`Dancers in the Wings', 1879-80) and Mary Cassatt. According to Claire Durand-Ruel, he was on cordial terms with Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Berthe Morisot (`The Harbour At Lorient', 1869), but felt a greater kindred spirit with the subject of `Portrait of Paul Cézanne' (1874).
Pissarro and Cézanne engaged in prolonged discussions about art theory and their mutual influence can be seen in canvases like the latter's `The Côté Saint-Denis At Pontoise' , and the former's `The Côté des Boeufs, Pontoise' (both 1877). Critic Théodore Duret, however, urged Pissarro to go his own way in capturing rural beauty, as he had the touch of a master, and Claire Durand-Ruel suggests this is why he isn't better known, as he opted for unspectacular subjects like `Farm At Montfoucault in Snow' (1874).
Helfenstein claims that this favouring of rustic views and labouring peasants reflected his political views, as he shunned the images of bourgeois leisure and comfort that intrigued his fellow Impressionists. However, he also spent a lot of time sketching and painting his family, with `Jeanne Pissarro (Minette) Holding a Fan' (c.1873) among the most intimate pieces. In all, he painted six portraits of his favourite, with `Jeanne Pissarro (Minette) Holding a Doll' (c.1874) being the most moving, as the eight year-old was dying.
He also had the habit of incorporating family members in his genre paintings, with his niece, Nini, being depicted at market in `The Pork Butcher' (1883). Such scenes didn't find favour with Third Republic buyers, who wanted familiar views like James Tissot's `In Full Sunlight' (1881) or Édouard Manet's `Masked Ball At the Opera' (1873). Albert Wolff criticised works like `Snow Scene At Pontoise' (1875) for lacking authenticity and Julie complained in a letter about the drudgery of living hand to mouth. Yet, she continued to sit for `Julie Pissarro Sewing, the `Red House', Pontoise' (c.1877), even as he admitted that he was going through a crisis that seemed to have no end.
By the third exposition, however, Gustave Caillebotte had started exhibiting works like `Paris Street; Rainy Day' (1877) and Durand-Ruel was beginning to find a receptive audience for Impressionist art. He held miniature one-man shows in his gallery, but Pissarro continued to struggle to sell works like `Spring: Plum Trees in Bloom' (1877). He remained loyal to the cause, as others ceased exhibiting with the group and women like Mary Cassatt (`On a Balcony', 1878-79) and Berthe Morisot (`Woman At Her Toilette' (1875-80) started to emerge. Newcomers like Paul Gauguin (`Winter Landscape, 1879) also earned Pissarro's friendship.
When eldest son Lucien left to paint in London, his father kept up a steady stream of correspondence, while working on pictures like `The Harvest, Pontoise' (1881). He also paid four visits to Rouen to paint bustling cityscapes like `Quai Napoléon, Rouen' (1883). But he lamented that his Durand-Ruel collection was weak, even though it contained `Women Gathering Grass' (1883), although Julie felt he had been badly served, as it coincided with the official Impressionist Exposition.
Consequently, business was slack and the family tensions remained. But he received new inspiration after moving to Éragny in 1884, where they bought a house with money that Julie borrowed from Monet. However, the pair argued over Georges Seurat's `A Sunday on La Grande Jatte' (1884-86) and Paul Signac's `Snow, Boulevard de Clichy' (1886), which Pissarro felt were a positive step in a new direction. He continued to develop with works like `View From My Window, Éragny' (1886-89) and `Apple Tree in the Sunlight, Éragny' (c.1887), which helped launch Neo-Impressionism with its blend of Pointillism and Divisionism. Such was his conviction that this was a breakthrough that he insisted on this `Scientific Impressionism' having a different room from the `Romantic Impressionists' at the last exposition.
Such was the intricacy of the technique on items like `Apple Picking' (1886), however, that pictures took longer to complete and Pissarro became less prolific. The latter was started in 1881 and changed in style over the years, as he experimented with Pointillism. However, Durand-Ruel didn't like the departure and urged Pissarro to emulate the more commercial Monet. He refused and took items like `Apple Picking, Éragny' (1887-88) to Theo Van Gogh and cursed his fate to Lucien, who was beginning to have success with paintings like `The Church At Éragny' (1886).
It was during this period that Pissarro painted `Les Glaneuses' (1889), which Osadtschy considers a political and feminist work in comparing its view of women working in the fields with Jean-François Millet's `The Gleaners' (1867). Over Pissarro's `View of Bazincourt, Sunlight' (c.1887) and Seurat's `A Fisherman' (c.1884), however, we hear how Pissarro was affected by his colleague's death, along with that of Theo Van Gogh, in 1891.
As he told Lucien, Pissarro was coming to doubt the potency of Pointillism and `Haymaking At Éragny' (1892) saw him return to Impressionism. This prompted Durand-Ruel to give him an exhibition in 1892, which represented Pissarro's first commercial success. Even then, he grumbled that French collectors were too conservative to appreciate great art and that many masterpieces would be grabbed by wealthy Americans.
Over `Self-Portrait With Palette' (c.1886), Harrison explains that Pissarro felt time was slipping through his fingers. Works like `Steamboats in the Port of Rouen' (1896) and `The Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning' (1897) saw another stylistic shift, as he started painting in hotel rooms in order to keep changing scenery. He continued to experiment, with items like `Design For a Fan: The Pea Stakers' (1890), which was one of many works that Imkampe explains depicted women working. Exceptions were `The Foot Bather' and `Bather in the Woods' (both 1895), which are more intimate and feminising (with the latter being a rare nude). These are compared to Degas's `Women Drying Her Foot' (1885-86).
Imkampe also highlights Pissarro's fascination with printing, with `Twilight With Haystacks' (1879), `Church and Farm Atc. Éragny-sur-Epte' (1894-95) and `Women Carrying Firewood' (c.1896) showing how he sought to refine his painterly technique to suit print. He bought a press for the barn, as Lucien started to explore woodcutting techniques in the likes of `Grape Harvest' (1899).
As we see `Gisors Market (Rue Cappeville)' (1894), we learn from Osadtschy that Pissarro got on with most people. But, having tried to overlook the strong anti-Semitism of Renoir and Degas, they fell out over the notorious Dreyfus Affair. More worryingly, an abscess in his eye made it more difficult to paint en plein air on works like `Pont Boieldieu, Rouen Sunset', `Morning, an Overcast Day, Rouen' (both 1896) and `Rue de L'Épicerie, Rouen (Effect of Sunlight)' (1898). Yet, he enjoyed painting works in series and rented a room on the Rue de Rivoli in Paris for the views in `The Tuileries Gardens in the Rain' (1899).
The critics raved about these later works, which came during an intensive burst of creativity around the turn of the century. He painted a final self-portrait in 1903, shortly before he died from unspecified causes on 13 November. The art world attended his funeral at Père Lachaise, with critic Georges Lacomte paying him a handsome tribute that celebrated his ability to convey his personality in his art and his genius for making hard work appear a life-affirming pleasure.
Directed, edited, co-photographed (with Hugh Hood) and co-written (with producer Phil Grabsky) by David Bickerstaff, this is a fine introduction to a wrongly neglected artist. It's less analytical than previous entries, when it comes to individual works or Pissarro's brush technique. But it's fascinating to discover how he operated as a unifier and motivator of the diverse movement that transformed Western art, while not being as appreciated by history because he painted with an unfashionable egalitarianism that celebrated the dignity of labour, the equality of the sexes and the beauty and functionality of the countryside.
As always, the scholastic contributions are first-rate, as is the imagery, which adroitly contrasts Pissarro's paintings, sketches and prints with the modern views of his old haunts. The letter extract and critical notices are neatly integrated into a screenplay that not only captures Pissarro's personality, but also the timbre of the times in which he lived. It might have been useful to hear more about the anti-Semitism he endured, as well as his strained relationship with Julie, who was clearly left alone to raise the children on frequently meagre resources while her husband devoted himself to his art.
We might also have learned more about Pissarro's relationships with his other painter sons, Georges, Félix, Ludovic-Rodo and Paul-Émile, as well as his youngest daughter, Jeanne (aka Cocotte). But this is another splendid treatise on a key period in French art to stand alongside the other dozen on Impressionism and its spin-offs in the Exhibition on Screen catalogue. No wonder Grabsky and Bickerstaff deserve to be spoken of in the same terms as such masters of the Art film as Luciano Emmer.
While the entire Principality could get behind Don't Take Me Home (2017), Jonny Owen's account of Wales's exploits at Euro 2016, one suspects that only Swansea City fans will be forking out for Pete Jones's Tosh. Cardiff City supporters might have been more interested had the documentary dwelt longer on John Toshack's exploits as a player with the Bluebirds. But they'll be as indifferent as their counterparts at Newport County and Wrexham, especially as the latter is now living its own movie fantasy, courtesy of Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenny.
Maybe Koppites needing something to take their mind off the quadruple will seek out a film that acknowledges the debt that Toshack the man and the manager owes to his Liverpool mentor, Bill Shankly. Had Shanks not spotted the potential partnership between the towering Toshack and the darting Kevin Keegan, this film wouldn't have been made, as Swansea's remarkable rise up the league pyramid under Tosh's tutelage would never have happened.
After rattling in 74 goals in 162 games over five seasons, Toshack signed for Liverpool for a record fee of £110,000 in 1970. Over the next eight years, he would notch 74 more strikes in 172 games, while winning three league titles, the FA Cup, two UEFA Cups, the UEFA Super Cup and the European Cup. Toshack added 13 more goals during his 40 caps for Wales. But injury plagued his last season at Anfield and he joined Swansea City as player-manager in March 1978. Over the next six seasons, he would score 24 times in 63 games. But the stats only tell a fraction of the story.
Graciously ignoring the fact that Cardiff manager Jimmy Andrews refused to add him to the coaching staff at Ninian Park because he lacked the qualifications for the post, Toshack recalls how Swansea chairman Malcolm Struel made him the youngest manager in the entire league at the age of 29. Adding to the challenge was the fact that, three years earlier, the Swans had been forced to apply for re-election to remain in the Fourth Division.
He was fortunate that incumbent Harry Griffiths took his demotion in good spirit and became a vital member of Toshack's backroom staff after an opening 3-3 draw with Watford that saw the Vetch Field gate double to over 15,000. First-teamers Alan Curtis, Danny Bartley and Wyndham Evans recall the smirks when he said he'd take them to the top in three seasons. But they also mention his aura and the confidence he instilled in the squad and the city.
Nigel Stevenson and Jeremy Charles remember how the training regime changed and how matchday briefings became more detailed. Moreover, canteen manager Dolly Phillips started cooking lunches to help with team bonding, although this was eased by the fact that even stars like Robbie James were local lads. This made it all the harder when Griffiths died suddenly on the morning of a game against Halifax Town and Toshack credits the first promotion to him, as he'd only come in for the final push.
During the summer, Toshack lured Tommy Smith, Ian Callaghan, Alan Waddle and Phil Boersma from Anfield and comedian John Bishop jokes about the Mumbles becoming like Las Vegas. Cally credits Tosh for passing on the good habits he had learned from Shankly and Bob Paisley and reveals to having thoroughly enjoyed a season that ended with the championship after Toshack himself scored the winner against Chesterfield in front of 25,000 at the Vetch.
Promotion to the Second Division came at a price, as Curtis went to Leeds United for a record £350,000 fee. But, with promises of stadium overhaul in the air, Neil Robinson, David Giles and Dzemal Hadziabdic joined the squad. Nevertheless, Toshack insisted on the players being part of the community and authors Darren Chetty and Dave Brayley and rugby legend Gareth Edwards recall how normal and accessible even star names like Leighton James were.
He has fond memories of the Bay View Pub and tells a splendid story about a night out to wet Neil Robinson's baby's head that culminated in 28 players being booked for drinking after hours. Most of the squad was worse for wear the next morning. But, because the session had been good for team morale that Tosh only fined the two players who hadn't been there.
A bonding trip to Magaluf had the same effect, while the return of Alan Curtis gave Swansea a fresh impetus going into the promotion run-in. Following a home thumping of Chelsea and a draw with Luton Town, all depended on the final game away at Deepdale. However, as Preston North End needed to win to stay up, Toshack knew it was going to be tough and he asked Shankly to give the squad a pep talk at the Holiday Inn in Liverpool.
As a former Preston player, Shanks might have had divided loyalties. But his affection for Toshack meant he answered the call without hesitation and assured him that his boys were ready to go into the First Division for the first time in the club's history. They repaid his faith and won 3-1, with a Charles goal sealing the win after a nervous period. Toshack declared it the best day of his life, while Shankly anointed him `the manager of the century' for taking Swansea so far in such a short space of time.
But he wasn't finished there. On the opening day of the first season in the top flight, the Vetch witnessed a 5-1 demolition of Leeds United that alerted the league that the Swans weren't simply there to make up the numbers. More positive results followed, but the long-awaited meeting with Liverpool was overshadowed by the sudden death four days before the game of Bill Shankly on 29 September. Toshack was one of the pallbearers and recalls his association with pride and gratitude because he wouldn't have gone on to enjoy such a stellar career if Shanks hadn't spotted his potential.
For the record, the game at Anfield ended 2-2. But Swansea won the return 2-0 (to the dismay of comic John Bishop), as they topped the table at various times (with Ray Kennedy and Bob Latchford in the team) during the season before finishing sixth. As local reporter John Bergum and club secretary Carol Fowler Sayle aver, it was a remarkable achievement and much of it was down to the team spirit that Toshack engendered among a squad that deftly combined homegrown and imported talent.
Four decades on, this remains the club's best league performance. But the film ignores what happens next to end on captions revealing that Toshack won La Liga with Real Madrid in 1990, with a record goal tally. Fourteen years later, he took up the post of national team manager and blooded the likes of Gareth Bale. However, a good deal more happened to Tosh and Swansea before he retired to Majorca after 40 years in management. But all that seems to belong to another story.
Given the shortage of match action from a time when lower-league football rarely featured on highlights programmes (although you'd have thought there would be some footage in Harlech's Soccer Special archive), editor Luc Daley (who also co-wrote the script and composed the score) makes canny use of press stills and local news interviews to take viewers back to a very different social and sporting time. Looking at the kits, it feels like yesterday. But the gap between now and then is smaller than the one between the last pre-Premier League decade and the days of baggy shorts and rock-hard caseys.
Apart from its splendid cast of talking heads, the film's strength, however, is its remarkable story. However, it's worth mentioning that Northampton Town (under Welshman Dave Bowen) got three promotions between 1960-65 prior to returning to the basement in 1969, while it took Wimbledon four seasons to emulate the feat in the decade after entering the league at the expense of Workington Town in 1977-78.
It's slightly disingenuous to overlook the fact that Swansea had slipped back to the Fourth Division by 1986 and, having almost gone bust, only just retained their league status in 2003 before going on another amazing journey that culminated in a 5-0 League Cup win over Bradford City in 2013. This might have been covered in Marc Evans's Jack to a King (2014), but a brief contextualising recap wouldn't have gone amiss. Moreover, after leaving in 1984, Toshack went on to manage another 12 clubs (with varying degrees of success) in Portugal, Spain, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Morocco and Iran, in addition to taking the Macedonia job. He comes across as a modest and affable chap and it's a relief that he survived a nasty brush with Covid-19 earlier this year. But it would still be nice to know more about his travels.
A-HA: THE MOVIE.
Viewing a-ha: The Movie, it would be easy to reach the conclusion that it's not much fun being part of Norway's premier synth-pop group. According to Thomas Robsahm and Aslaug Holm's rockumentary, the trio have spent four decades feuding while seeking a middle ground between Smash Hits celebrity and aspirations to being a Nordic Echo & the Bunnymen. Gradually, it emerges that guitarist Pål Waaktaar-Savoy, keyboardist Magne Furuholmen and singer Morten Harket need the tensions in order to thrive. But, as Waaktaar-Savoy's wife, Lauren, rightly asserts, `It's sinful not to appreciate what you have when you have so much.'
There were times when a-ha had nothing, most notably in London in the early 1980s after Waaktaar and Furuholmen (who had been playing together since pre-teenhood as Bridges) left Oslo intent on securing a recording contract. Harket joined them in a series of increasingly insalubrious lodgings before they were taken up by producer Jim Ratcliff and manager Terry Slater, who forged them a deal with Warner Bros.
In searching for a single, Harket suggested `Take On Me', even though they all agreed it sounded like a jingle for Juicy Fruit chewing gum. The first version flopped everywhere but Norway. However, producer Alan Tarney burnished it in a single session to make more of Furuholmen's keyboard riff. Consequently, the song took Europe by storm and even topped the Billboard chart in the United States. Yet Furuholmen (who had never forgiven Waaktaar for forcing him to give up the guitar for a synthesiser) still deeply resents the fact that he was denied a songwriting credit for a catchy hook that was every bit as crucial to the song's success as Harket's falsetto vocal and Steve Barron's rotoscoped video, which became a fixture on MTV.
The ensuing album, Hunting High and Low (1984), spawned the UK chart-topper, `The Sun Always Shines on TV'. But it only scraped into the Hot 100 and, as a result, a-ha is considered a `one-hit wonder' band in the USA. This is nonsense, of course, as the album yielded four singles and sold 11 million copies worldwide. Moreover, a-ha received a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist (losing to Sade) and featured on countless magazine covers while playing to screaming crowds from Sydney to Tokyo.
Three singles were drawn from the 1986 Scoundrel Days album, which edged in tone towards alternative rock. However, the misfiring of `Manhattan Skyline' cost them dear in the United States, even though a-ha's popularity elsewhere led to them being invited to compose the theme tune for John Glen's James Bond movie, The Living Daylights (1987). Composer John Barry took exception to their insistence on recording the track in their own way and compared them to the Hitler Youth. But they brushed off the slur and had another hit with the 1988 album, Stay on These Roads.
Sales had started to dip, however, and the reviews for East of the Sun, West of the Moon (1990) were mixed. Yet a-ha still drew a world record crowd of 198,000 to the Maracanã Stadium for the Rock in Rio II festival in January 1991. The achievement did little to boost their reputation, however, and niggles within the combo and Harket's boredom with being a reluctant teen idol prompted a hiatus following the 1993 album, Memorial Beach, which was primarily recorded at Prince's Paisley Park studio.
A reunion followed an appearance at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in 1998, with a world tour promoting the 2000 album, Minor Earth Major Sky. Such was their enduring popularity, as they passed their 20th anniversary, that they guested (albeit with some technical issues) at the Live 8 concert in Berlin in 2005. The album Analogue duly followed, with the title track taking a-ha back into the UK Top 10. But the trio were becoming as committed to solo projects as they were to their collective endeavours. Waaktaar formed a band with wife Lauren Savoy, while Furuholmen (who had developed a heart condition) devoted himself to art.
Harket also released an album. But they came together again for Foot of the Mountain (2009), which marked a return to the synth pop style of their heyday. Not everyone was happy with the change of direction, however, and it was announced that the 2010 tour would be a farewell affair. Five years later, however, the threesome reformed to play live and record Cast in Steel. As the documentary shows, however, they travel in separate cars to gigs and refuse to share dressing-rooms. Their official photographer, Stian Andersen, despairs of getting them to pose together without their body language betraying the deep-rooted resentment and apathy. MTV's 2017 Unplugged special became a particular bone of contention. Yet, on stage, the old magic remains, and a-ha have resumed gigging in the post-Covid era. They also have an album provisionally entitled True North lined up for later in 2022. For all the gloom and doom, therefore, the a-ha story seems far from over.
Considering the fact they've only produced 10 studio albums in four decades, the members of a-ha should spend more time being grateful for their enduring status than griping. Of course, they're entitled to their grievances. But, given their lack of success outside the band, they should thank their lucky stars and get on with it.
Shooting over four years, Robsahm has amassed plenty of material. But little of it is spun with gold and, while diehards will relish the level of detail, the less committed will occasionally find time hanging heavily. This situation might have been alleviated had Robsahm and co-director Holm allowed a few outside voices to be heard. As it is, the closest we get to critical analysis is a clip of Coldplay's Chris Martin acknowledging his debt to a-ha.
Certainly the music needs closer scrutiny, if only because it kept changing style when the group's public persona didn't. Moreover, Furuholmen and Harket's resentment at Waaktaar-Savoy wanting to use a-ha as the vehicle for his own musical furrow is the key to the mindset that has dictated their output and in-fighting. To be fair, the trio are candidly honest in their interview segments, for which the New York-based Waaktaar-Savoy opted to use English. But, despite the acuity of editor Hilde Bjørnstad, this always feels closer in tone to Joe Pearlman and David Soutar's Bros: After the Screaming Stops (2018) than Ondi Timoner's Dig! (2004).