Mamma Mia!

Posted on December 16, 2008 at 8:00 am

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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 Fältskog 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.

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Musical Romance

12 Replies to “Mamma Mia!”

  1. Great review, Nell. Brosnan’s cringe-inducing singing notwithstanding, I enjoyed the film too (have to say I like the stage show better though!). Oh, and just FYI in case you want to correct it, the title is “Mamma Mia!” instead of “Mama Mia.”

  2. I think she was referring to the double ‘m’ in Mamma as well as the exclamation mark.

  3. Thanks, Charm! It’s fixed. 10 corrections and you get a free copy of my book, so keep ’em coming!

  4. Nell,
    You provide a great service to all moms, dads and concerned adults who want to know more about a movie before taking their child, thank you! (And best wishes on your corporate governance activities as well, heard you on the last Treasury ACAP webcast… interested in seeing where they end up tomorrow…).
    What a challenge in your comment above where you said if someone can find 10 errors they get a free copy of your book! The best I could do would be to challenge the lower case ‘Abba’ you have above in your link to “Abba in Concert” – although admittedly that is how it appears in the original link on Amazon, but is the authentic title “ABBA” in all caps [technically with the B’s reversed if I could type that]? Even WETA split the difference by listing it once as “Abba in Concert” and once as “ABBA in Concert” here and surprisingly, the New York Times used both upper and lower case in a number of articles shown here:
    Maybe this question falls in the Principles-based vs. rules-based category? Anyway, thanks again for the important service you provide in helping us guide our kids to movies they will enjoy rather than unwisely suffer through, either type experience can have lasting effects so your reviews are very much appreciated.

  5. I looooooved it.
    The most significant change I noticed between the musical and the movie was that in the stage version, the gay character has a long-term significant other at home in England. In the movie, he seems to come out while on the island, and it’s played up for comedic effect. I’m not sure why they changed it, and I probably wouldn’t have minded if I hadn’t known about the more graceful portrayal– but with that in mind, it bothered me.
    I thought everything else was sensational though, including Pierce Brosnan’s adorably bad singing. I’d go see it again in a minute.

  6. I LOVED this movie so much!!! I saw it last night with my youngest daughter, but I will be going back to see it with my best BFFs tomorrow!! It is hilarious and so fun! I left wanting to go dancing and I will be getting the soundtrack today!!!!
    I didn’t know Meryl Streep could sign so great! And Christine Baranski (who I love) and Julie Walters were great as her BFF’s!!!
    All women need to see this movie with their girlfriends and be ready to sing along!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. I thought I would provide some testosterone to the otherwise estrogen comments. My wife sucker punched me into seeing this movie. We were going to see a typical adventure, thriller guy movie, but when we arrived late she suggested we see “Mama Mia” instead. The funny thing is our adult son said that is exactly what would happen, but I didn’t believe him. However, I must say that I had a very enjoyable time going down nostalgia lane with the ABBA songs. I’m also glad the stars did their own singing, even Pierce Brosnan. Meryl Streep has a suprisingly good voice. What I did find objectionable was the sympathetic portrayal of promiscuity, hedonism, single motherhood and homosexuality, especially your comment that “a strength of the movie is the supportive portrayal of a gay character.” Whatever happened to old fashioned virtues and morals? Gone down the drain into the gutter of the worldly movie industry.

  8. Thanks so much for writing, Larry! All the men I know who have seen it found themselves enjoying it.
    I share your concerns about the portrayal of promiscuity, even in a light-hearted musical like this one. But the fundamental morality of the movie seemed solid to me. A young women who made some foolish choices found herself pregnant and became a devoted and responsible mother. Her daughter realizes that she cannot make up for the absence of her father by getting married. A mature woman turns down the chance to dally with a young man. We disagree about the portrayal of a gay character and I agree with the previous comment that it was too bad they left out the part of the play that showed that he had the strongest long-term relationship of any one of the principals. The old-fashioned virtues and morals that mean the most to me are the ones about ensuring everyone respect, kindness, and dignity and I am glad to see a large portion of the population too often omitted in the past represented on screen.

  9. I’ve just recently seen this movie, and have something to add to the discussion that I haven’t seen addressed yet. I thought the strength of the movie was actually the “oldster” love. In so many places in our culture love is reserved for young, beautiful, perfect people but in this movie mature, imperfectly singing, overall wearing, mistake-making (gorgeous) people with promiscuity, single parenthood, divorces & grown children in their histories find love.

  10. A great point, thanks! The upcoming movie “Last Chance Harvey” with Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson is another great portrayal of love between grown-ups.

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