Though the ‘80s didn’t invent music videos, they did become an essential form of cultural currency, as high profile directors, big budgets, and a channel that played them non-stop pushed them into our collective consciousness. But it’s only recently that those original videos--most shot on film, not video by the way--have been getting the remaster treatment that Hollywood blockbusters and art house classics receive. Last month, we saw the film grain and romantic lighting in Wham’s “Last Christmas” video remastered in 4K. And now another inescapably ‘80s earworm gets the treatment: “Take on Me” by Norway’s finest, A-ha.
For those who haven’t seen the video, it’s a fairytale of a down-on-her luck girl who falls in love with the hero (A-ha’s lead singer Morten Harket) in a comic book, then falls into the comic book where both become pencil drawings. Under attack from wrench-wielding bad guys, she escapes back into the real world and in a love-conquers-all miracle, Morten makes it into the real world and into the arms of his love. All in three minutes and change.
A-ha might have been seen as a one-hit wonder band by some, but the loving doc on the making of the song and video demonstrates there’s no such thing as an overnight success. The band struggled for years to make it, and “Take On Me” wasn’t even their first choice for a song--the band called it “Juicy Fruit” because its relentless cheerful pop sounded to the band like an American chewing gum ad.
And they struggled to get the song right--an early version was released three times but failed to catch on. They even recorded a version and filmed a bland music video for it. For some groups, this failure might have been it, but you have to admire A-ha. They were hungry and they knew, just knew, that the song should be a hit.
As the doc shows, several music industry execs thought so too. The band pleaded and got themselves a new producer: Alan Tarney. He went back to the group’s original demo and brought back what their first producer had taken out, but layered on synth after synth as well. From original demo to the hit single, it had taken four years.
For the video, Warner Bros. exec Jeff Ayeroff wanted something comic book based, and co-worker John Beug knew what might work. He had seen a student animation called “Commuter” by Candace Reckinger and Mike Patterson, and the two were hired to recreate their rotoscoped technique for the video, taking months and months of hand-drawn hard work to complete.
The resulting video, directed by Steve Barron is a classic. It’s been parodied on Family Guy and as a Children In Need charity special. And it still works as a mini narrative: each verse adds an element to the story, the frenetic piano instrumental bridge brings in the element of danger, and the final chorus brings it all together with a tear and an embrace. (The influence of Ken Russell’s Altered States is not mentioned in the doc, but it’s an obvious touchstone.)
The young woman co-starring in the video is Bunty Bailey, who appeared in several other ‘80s videos (like this one for Billy Idol). For a lump in the throat moment reunion, keep watching through to the end, where old friends get reunited.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.