I unabashedly love ABBA. I grew up with a dad whose two favorite bands were The Beatles and ABBA so hold than in higher accord than others who don’t make that comparison. I’ve seen the official ABBA cover band 4 times in concert and before the release of the movie, saw a touring production of the musical in Hershey, PA. The butt of all this is my mother, who has been divorced from my father since I was 18 months has had to attend all these ABBA functions with me by some cruel twist of fate. Funny enough mothers and fates play a major role in the filmed sensation of Mamma Mia!. Set on a remote Greek island, a young girl Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is about to be married and invites her three possible fathers to the wedding, throwing her mother Donna (Meryl Streep) for a loop of emotions as ancient history of lost loves flood back. It’s a musical made specifically marketing towards my parent’s generation’s nostalgia for the 70’s but also as a bonding experience for mothers and daughters. It wants this to be shared through fun dance numbers where kids can be embarrassed by their mom’s silly outfits and then to turn around and hug them, appreciating their relationship. There are wholesome intentions present even if the film is less than stellar.
I find the plot quite sweet as it’s the innocent desire of a girl looking for an answer of who her father is. Two days before the wedding the three unsuspecting men show up, Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), Harry (Colin Firth) and Sam (Pierce Bronson) all with their dashing smiles and middle aged man bods. It’s simplistic storytelling and with all the characters including my MVPS Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters), there’s lots of opportunities for pair ups and people to go off and have their song. I’d say for the most part, the ABBA tunes work well with the narrative. Whether they’re diegetic performances at the bachelorette party as Donna and the Dynamos dawn their vintage attire to sing for the younger girls, conveying what would be spoken in the scene like the big emotional speech of “Winner Takes It All” or just underscoring a scene like introducing all the potential father with the high energy flute of “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme”. No song feels too forced. I zone out during the ballads as I’ve never been a fan of those. “Slipping Through My Fingers” is such a bore, especially when your mother would prefer to hear anything but more ABBA. The film excels with the poppier song anyway because it gives way to some of the most batshit crazy choreography I’ve ever seen. From the flipper dancing men in “Lay All Your Love On Me” to the near hundred women who parade out to “Dancing Queen”. It’s as if you through a bunch of ideas into a hat, threw away the hat and said “dance however you want as long as it’s sometimes in unison.”
Bigger is the name of the game here. My theory is that was the strategy when they realized half the cast can’t sing. All the dads have atrocious voices and Streep’s is subpar at best and you’re relying on them to carry a musical. What else can you do but distract your audience with bright colors, beautiful scenery and the hammiest of performances. What’s crazy is ABBA songs aren’t even that hard to sing! You know you’re in trouble when “S.O.S.” is a challenging and maybe a more literal allegory for your film. To compensate, a scene like “Mamma Mia” has Streep rolling around on a barn roof arms stretched out as the local Greek villagers try to pick up the vocal slack. It goes even bigger as “Money, Money, Money” has its own fantasy sequence on a boat invoking Titanic level imagery. Now it’s not all bad. Seyfried has proven in this and Les Mis to be a decent movie soprano and really made me fall for her version of “Honey, Honey.” I really like what director Phyllida Lloyd does with “Voulez Vous” as Seyfried feels her world spinning around her, overwhelmed with the wedding and her fathers. As I stated Tanya and Rosie are gems as the comedic best friends. Baranski kills it with “Does Your Mother Know” even though she’s acting against the most wooden hottie, she can still pull off sexy hip shaking and blow job insinuations.
Definitely going into this rewatch, I forgot how much this film was geared toward older women. It fakes you out with having the opening focus on Sophie as she send the letters and her friends arrive first to set up the backstory of her mother’s summer of love affairs but after that it’s adult city as Streep and friends reminisce on old sexcapades, laughing at so many innuendos. The movie is really promoting the middle aged still being able to have fun and find love. It’s all about drinking, dancing and enjoying the company of your friends at a riper age while those crazy kids get married. I think why all this came as a surprise to me because of how much I already cherish this music that I feel it’s a movie for me and not my mom. It doesn’t hinder my experience but it’s still a shock because of how few films aim for this demographic. Even though it wasn’t introducing ABBA to me, I hope it did for anyone else my age who were dragged by their parents to see it.
Part of me doesn’t want to say it’s a good movie. I’m so bothered by the saturated color correction that turned everyone’s skin orange or that I have to sit through people singing “Our Last Summer” off key but then it feels worth is for the excitement of “Voulez Vous” and “Mamma Mia” that I wanted to belt out in my seat. I love it because these songs give me chills, evoking my own youthful memories and it’s great seeing people act them out on screen rather than just in my headphones. There’s enough charm and life here that I’m willing to give it a pass. All the actors seem to be enjoying the hell out of themselves and you can feel it even if it’s a bit ridiculous. I appreciate all the years my mother has endured disco with me and while she may not want ABBA to be a resonating memory for me, the movie did make me think of her and what mother’s will do for their kids. Whether it’s a comedy of fates at a big white wedding or seeing a jukebox musical at the local cinema.