It’s hard to believe that it’s been a decade since Jennifer Saunders first donned the dowdy dungarees of Mamma Mia’s Donna Sheridan, AKA Meryl Streep, for Comic Relief. And lucky for the British populace, Saunders and co were back with a vengeance for a second spoof - this time of the sequel.
Now, I can’t profess to be a die-hard ABBA fan, but there’s no denying that they have produced some of the catchiest pop classics of the past 50 years. A wedding party wouldn’t be complete without at least one of the big hitters filling the dancefloor, after all.
And whilst no-one can argue with their popularity and longevity, the members themselves are approaching a combined age not far short of 300.
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that given the opportunity to piggyback off the success of two summer blockbusters and the ninth-longest running show in Broadway history, they have adopted a route of reaching fans that befits a well-earned retirement.
GIMME! GIMME! GIMMICK?
It's a sad fact of life that many of the musical legends of our youth are no longer with us. Of those that remain, not all of them are willing or able to continue performing. But what of the fans still desperate for more? That's where holograms come in...
Cue the Abbatars: holographic virtual avatars representing the foursome in all the glory of their 70s heyday. A global television special is expected later in 2019, with a world tour to follow, and all whilst Agnetha, Anni-Frid, Björn and Benny kick back with a smörgåsbord in their native Sweden.
This isn’t new technology - far from it – but it certainly sounds like one of the most ambitious executions for holographic experiences to date.
When Tupac’s posthumous performance at Coachella 2012 left mouths agape around the world, the presumption that state-of-the-art holographic technology was used was soon debunked and replaced with a more feasible explanation for the time – CGI and some very clever trickery.
Since then, however, there have been a number of “real” holographic performers sprouting up at a venue near you. Most notably, perhaps, is the Big O himself – Roy Orbison – plying his trade on the UK and US tour circuits in hologram form for most of 2018. The fact that he sadly passed away in 1988, at a mere 52 years old, becomes oddly inconsequential when the opportunity arises to see him perform his greatest hits at legendary venues like the Hammersmith Apollo with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra thrown in for good measure.
Neil McCormick, music critic for The Telegraph, condemned the concert as “a live hologram show that’s about as dead as can be”, citing the “uncanny valley effect” (whereby “the closer replicas get to reality, small gaps in verisimilitude elicit feelings of eeriness and even revulsion in observers”) as the principal reason for his displeasure. The unwillingness of 3,500 attendees to suspend belief and fully immerse themselves in the show, in his view, contributed to the general awkwardness around applauding a legend who is no longer around to hear it. Moreover, his own unease centred on the realisation that the gaps in verisimilitude will close with time and technology, and that one day all live shows might be like this.
This is where our opinion differs...
Whilst the early, tentative steps into experiential holographic entertainment may feel gimmicky, awkward or downright unrealistic, the prospect of a future technology that is so sophisticated that you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference is mind-blowingly exciting.
In years to come, our children might be able to watch England’s victory in the 1966 World Cup Final at Wembley as our grandparents might have done. Or relive Woodstock, or Live Aid. Or watch in awe as The Beatles perform at Carnegie Hall. The possibilities are endless.
The most exciting prospect for me, however, is the impact holographic technology could have on at-home entertainment. Perhaps Beethoven could provide the perfect musical interlude at a dinner party, or Peppa Pig could pop up from time to time to encourage the kids to play outdoors, no longer restricted to the realms of the iPad screen. Or I could fulfil a childhood dream of mine by being “in the crowd” at Hill Valley’s Enchantment Under the Sea Dance to witness Marty McFly rocking out to Johnny B. Goode. I could go on and on.
What the Abbatar tour tells us is that the music events industry is moving forward whilst looking back. Not only can we relive our misspent youth, but we can introduce new generations to “old” music in an accessible, immersive and impactful way.
I genuinely dread the day that the legends of rock and roll are no longer with us. Macca, The Boss… Losing David Bowie really hurt. They were all incredibly important influences in my formative years (and to this day!), but at least now there is hope for a future where their voices, stage presence and sheer unequivocal talent can be enjoyed “in person” for generations to come.