Posted on December 16, 2008 at 8:00 am
Go ahead, admit it. We won’t judge you. You, in the car, with the Ramones t-shirt, singing along to “Fernando” when it comes on the radio. And you, in the shower, singing “Dancing Queen” into the shampoo bottle. You, over there, pretending you don’t have the Greatest Hits CD on your shelf. Say it loud. You’re a fan. You can’t resist ABBA. Like the Borg, resistance is futile. Those songs are not just stuck in your head; they are a part of your DNA. Yes, ABBA’s platform-shod, glitter and spandex-wearing, unforgettable (even when you want to) music may be ear candy but it is high quality ear candy and I dare you not to sing along and smile about it.
ABBA (the name comes from the first letters in the first names of its four members) was one of the top pop groups in the world from 1972-1982 with sales of almost 400 million records (as we used to call them back then). In April of 1999 the musical “Mamma Mia!” opened in London and like the songs that inspired it, it quickly became an international phenomenon. It had just enough of a story to link the songs together as something more than a revue or what today is called a “jukebox musical.” And now, more than a quarter century since their last hit song, the movie version of the musical has been released or rather unleashed, powerful enough to make the most hard-hearted indie rock absolutist clap along.
ABBA songs are like helium balloons — lighter than air but irresistible fun. This musical featuring the songs of the uber-pop Swedish group who at one point exceeded Volvo as the greatest revenue-producing enterprise in the country is as bubbly as a glass of champagne and almost as intoxicating.
Donna (Meryl Streep, enjoying herself enormously) is a one-time girl-group singer who now runs a ramshackle resort in Greece. Her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried of HBO’s “Big Love”) is about to get married. And without telling her mother she has invited three men she has never met who could be her father: businessman Sam (Pierce Brosnan), author/sailor Bill (Stellan SkarsgÃ¥rd), and decidedly un-spontaneous banker Harry (Colin Firth). They arrive just as the other alumnae from Donna’s group show up, multi-married and very well-preserved Tanya (Christine Baranski) and best-selling cookbook author Rosie (Julie Walters). Various slamming-door near-misses, some combustible confrontations, and many musical numbers later, everyone is ready for the platform-shoes and spangled bell-bottoms encore.
The light-weight story line is just enough to provide momentum between the songs but it gives them some surprising heft as well. At times it seems a little stunt-ish and there were some hoots from the audience for the opening notes of songs that we thought we knew too well. But we end up hearing them differently separated from the crystalline harmonies of Agnetha FÃ¤ltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad and the lyrics fit surprisingly well into the storyline. But what adds real resonance is the way they are performed. Director Phyllida Lloyd cast actors in the roles. Their singing may not be perfect but they deliver the songs with gusto and sincerity. A couple of times there were snorts from the audience at recognizing the opening bars of a song they’d heard a hundred times, thinking it had been cheesily shoehorned into the plot. But within the first eight bars it seemed as though the song had been written for just that moment, especially Streep’s “Winner Takes it All.”
But the highlight of the movie is the dance numbers which make great use of the geographic and narrative settings. Broadway veteran Baranski does a fabulous job with “Does Your Mother Know” and Walters is charming with “Take a Chance on Me.” A literal Greek chorus joins in, at one point with swimming flippers. Take a chance on this one; in no time you’ll be a dancing queen.