“Without a song or a dance what are we?”
With 400 million albums sold worldwide, 17 number one hits and a constant 16 million weekly global streams today, ABBA are the world’s most successful music act of all time after The Beatles. Their vast audience crosses all generations, as evidenced by the over one billion views on TikTok in 2022. Now, for the first time since their final concert in Tokyo in 1982, the famous Swedish pop group have reunited for ABBA Voyage, an ongoing series of gigs in their very own ABBA Arena at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London. All four ABBA members, Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad greeted fans at the opening night of ABBA Voyage this week to see their revolutionary new concert which shows them performing their greatest hits as extremely lifelike digital avatars, with a ten-piece live band, including three backing singers.
The group’s daily concerts are in a state-of-the-art, 3,000 person capacity arena in east London, built specially for ABBA. Tickets are on sale for the next year but with a four year lease on the site, there’s obviously an expectation of an even longer run. And judging from the enthusiastic reaction in the first week and brisk sales for months ahead, this appears to be easily achievable.
The long-awaited concert features a setlist of 21 of ABBA’s biggest, most popular hits. The digital versions of the four members of ABBA have been created following months of motion-capture and performance techniques with the band and a 1,000-strong team from legendary VFX company, Industrial Light & Magic, the company founded by George Lucas, in their first musical project. Previous big-name productions include The Batman, No Time to Die and Black Widow. Over ten million computer hours were involved in creating the “Abbatars.” The ILM team started by scanning original photos and film footage of the band. After observing how ABBA moved, spoke and sang in 1970s performances, TV interviews and noting how they wore their hair and makeup, they began to create the avatars. Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid, now in their mid-70s, were all closely involved in this process too and over five weeks in Stockholm, performed every single song individually, wearing motion capture dots and silver balls so their precise movements would be recreated in their avatars. Choreographer Wayne McGregor (The Royal Ballet, Company Wayne McGregor, Paris Opera Ballet) worked with ABBA on movement and this was combined with the 1970s concert film footage and body doubles to recreate some of the complex moves.
The 95 minute concert features ABBA re-imagined as 21st century pop stars, with costumes designed by B Åkerlund in collaboration with designers Dolce & Gabbana, Manish Arora, Erevos Aether and Michael Schmidt. Real costumes were made before being digitised by Industrial Light & Magic. Alongside their greatest hits, the concert includes songs from Voyage, the band’s first album in 40 years, released last year to critical acclaim and reaching No. 1 in over 18 countries worldwide.
The concert also features two short films by the award-winning visual arts collective Shynola, a narrative that spans two of ABBA’s classic tracks to create a story complementing the Voyage theme, that focuses on an inquisitive explorer Rora.
In addition to Wayne McGregor and B Åkerlund, the ABBA Voyage concert has a stellar list of collaborators including: Producer Svana Gisla (David Bowie Blackstar/Lazarus, Beyoncé and Jay Z for HBO, Springsteen and I), Producer Ludvig Andersson (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again), Director Baillie Walsh (Massive Attack, Flashbacks of a Fool, Being James Bond, Springsteen and I), and Co-Executive Producer Johan Renck (Spaceman, David Bowie Blackstar/Lazarus, Chernobyl).
There was never any question that this show would be online rather than live in a concert hall as ABBA were keen that it would be a live, shared experience. It was essential that the audience would feel that they’d been at a real gig surrounded by fellow concert goers.
So, is the technology convincing and is it worth travelling to London for? The answer is a resounding yes. It is a remarkable accomplishment. It doesn’t feel like hyperbole to describe ABBA Voyage as the most exciting concert you’ll enjoy this year: this is a truly joyful experience that was worth waiting 40 years for.