How was ‘ABBA – The Movie’ screened and promoted in Hungary? What media coverage did it get in the Hungarian press? A retrospective press review.
ABBA, the supported foreign act in Hungary
It is a well-known fact that ABBA -The Movie was one of the most essential films shown in Hungary in 1978. While it was not the only motion picture with music at that time, this received much more press coverage than The Song Remains the Same (the Led Zeppelin concert film), which came out at around the same time.
Why was the ABBA film more popular? First and foremost, it is worth mentioning that popularity which surrounded the Swedish quartet. While Led Zeppelin was followed by the rockers mostly, ABBA was even loved by almost everyone; from children to older people. What is more, the group was supported from above at the state level because they played quality music and they had a clear-cut image that was miles from being aggressive. Last but not least, it was also thought that ABBA could be ideal for the Socialist person of the seventies because the band came from a Western country whose government was social-democratic.
Therefore, it is not surprising that ABBA was the most popular foreign act of the 1970s, and there was a huge demand for the band’s records in Hungarian record shops. On the other hand, the Hungarian press, however, was divided over ABBA; while some journalists loved them and wrote supportively about the Swedish Fab Four, there were others who were dismissive of the group. Among those, János Sebők, a renowned rock music journalist, described the Swedish quartet in a rather disparaging way in his 1981 book From The Beatles to New Wave.
„Abba: blah-blah. Rock ABBA-ration. Frigid music. Computer-pop. Super-commerce. It’s like a tissue which is disposable after one use.”
An exclusive way of promotion
Despite these, ordinary people were keen on the band and wanted to know everything about ABBA. On top of that, the Hungarian film industry wanted to make a big profit from ABBA – The Movie, so a unique and special promotional campaign, untypical for a socialist country, was linked to the film’s premiere on 13 July 1978.
„From 11 July for ten days, between 5 and 7 a.m., ABBA balloons will be erected from several places in the capital, like the City Park, Margaret Island and the Buda Hills. Before that, ABBA records and film posters will be selected by a draw in the cinemas.” – said Dr Sándor Nagy, director of FÖMO in the 24 June issue of Esti Hírlap.
Besides these, on the premiere screening at Corvin Cinema, some popular disc jockeys (László B. Tóth and Fabula) entertained the audience with ABBA quizzes, so some posters and records could be won. On top of that, the decoration of the Corvin Cinema was ABBA-themed. The July 1978 issue of Ifjúsági Magazin wrote the following:
„For the first time, only at Corvin cinema, a spectacular show entertained the audience before the screening. The showman is „Fabula”, one of the best-known disc jockeys in the country, who draws Abba posters in a pop music quiz in front of the projected sets. Among his guests, there are artists, a fakir and some famous bands and musicians.”
In parallel with the activities in the capital, some countryside cinemas were also on the move. The 18 June issue of the Dunántúli Napló wrote that
“the entire stock of speakers in Petőfi Cinema in Pécs is being replaced and even expanded. The amplifiers will also be replaced so that the audience can enjoy the high and low sounds (of ABBA – The Movie) perfectly. After all, music is as important as an interesting story. Petőfi cinema, with its refurbished sound equipment, will also be able to make good recordings with hand-held tape recorders, including, of course, the noise of the cinema audience. For the occasion, the company will also have large ABBA posters printed in five colours and sold before the performance.”
In addition to these, the Skála department store of Székesfehérvár had a special offer entitled „Do you love ABBA?” for such costumers, who spent more than 1000 HUF in the store, were given two tickets per person to the ABBA film.
At the same time with the promotion, reviews of the film in the national press started to emerge. They were mixed, but among these, there are some positive ones. For example, József Veress gave the following assessment in the 2 June 1978 issue of Kelet-Magyarország:
„It happens that the huge audience is justified, because the film deserves interest and attention. “ABBA” is good picture and a quality entertainment. This time the full houses are a tribute to its commendable quality. It is worth unravelling the ‘secret’ of ABBA and discussing why a film genre that has been mostly relegated to the periphery can be so interesting. (…) The film does not show any convulsive effort to present the members of the band as stars with a capital „A”. In connection to this, there is not any idealisation. The popular ‘foursome’ is simply made up of people – people who love and understand their craft and truly captivate their listeners. Anni-Frid, Agnetha, Benny and Björn don’t act in front of the camera: they behave naturally, their smiles are not like toothpaste advertising, they are easy and restrained in their idolisation (…) Also, the frame story is good. To spin only songs one after the other, even if they are world hits, would be thin ammunition for an all-night movie.”
Like him, the Yugoslavian Magyar Szó was also positive on the band in its 24 August issue:
„Understandably, we do not pay special attention to the frame story, since it is obvious that the real protagonist of the film is the music itself. The visual aims of the director and the cinematographer were to show ABBA as a group in a proper way, on the level of a good masterpiece, and everything else that was worthwhile during their career.”
In contrast, Péter Gyárfás approached the ABBA phenomenon in a rather negative and sardonic way in the 11 August issue of Magyar Ifjúság.
According to him, „We can hear them on the radio every day, thousands of shopping bags have the four musicians’ portraits and their newest album, which is still at the top of the charts, has been released (in Hungary) at the same time as the film premiere – such a coincidence is rare. So the band has plenty of propaganda. This is the guarantee of a full house”.
The journalist also adds that the ABBA members are „the pure, or more precisely the sterile ones, who just ooze satisfaction. They sing about problems, of course – but mostly their own problems. They want to talk to everyone about everything, which is probably why they don’t really touch anyone.”
He is equally dismissive of the plot of the film. „Unfortunately, the story of how a local radio station’s disc jockey becomes a clumsy reporter after his boss assigns him to do a colourful, wide-ranging and intimate interview with ABBA members is a weak ‘encore’.”
A similar bad review written by Éva Virág F. appeared in the August 1 issue of Tolna Megyei Hírlap. The journalist also dismissed the ABBA phenomenon, and thus the film itself.
„…to be honest, I went to see Abba thinking that I had never heard an Abba song before. You can imagine my surprise when it turned out I knew it like the back of my hand (sic!). Either I’ve heard them, or they sound as if I have (…) Abba music is the kind of music that sticks in your head even if you don’t pay attention to it. (…) There is nothing to say about Abba as a film. The cinematic representation is clearly a tool for the pop music business. Speaking of which, for the first time in the history of our cinemas, as far as I know, posters for a film are being sold. For a very high price.”
Fortunately, there were more thoughtful opinions that approached the work from a different angle. Sándor Tihanyi, a journalist for Film, Színház, Muzsika, wrote in the 15 July issue that
„The concert recording is so transparent that I suspected play-back at the beginning. The cinematographers expose the harsh, colourful lights of the stage with such precision as if they were working in at least flat-lit studio conditions. And the director’s „visions” are pleasant and atmospheric: trees, grass, horses, birds, and the sea. Backlight, softening filter.”
In an article entitled THE ABBA MOVIE – Their Own Escorts (released in the 20 July issue of Fejér Megyei Hírlap), the publicist wrote that
„When comparing Abba to the two Beatles films, which are also important in the history of cinema, the differences are as striking as when comparing the musical styles of the two great quartets or the styles of their fans. Richard Lester, the director of A Hard Day’s Night, was considered world-class after one Cannes Grand Prix (…) when he tackled the subject of Liverpool’s mushroom heads, and (…) he has since created a school of thought in the genre of the film show that has been repeatedly copied. (…) Hallström, on the other hand, remains a little grey, even when he is overdoing the possibilities of widescreen Technicolor and stereo sound effects.”
Even though some dismissive reviews appeared in the Hungarian press, the audience loved the film so much that some cinemas in the capital and the countryside screened ABBA – The Movie for some years, even in 1982! This was despite the fact that the group was banned in most socialist countries; the reason for this was that the group had made a video statement in support of the Polish Solidarity movement.
In the 1990s and 2000s, several cinema clubs screened the film; the most recent screening was at Pólus Cinema on 1st August 2018. This event was special because a restored version was shown that far exceeded the expectations of the audience in both sound and vision.