I feel an utter loss of clinical objectivity as I sit down to write this review. I can say that I had a ball and a half, the likes of which I don’t think I’ve seen this year. Like a similar adored hoot, Hairspray, Mamma Mia is a stage musical adapted to the big screen and stuffed with appealing stars. Where Mamma Mia lacks Hairspray’s deeper satirical touches about intolerance, it gains in sheer fantasy pleasure. Sure, the characters make huge decisions on a dime, mainly to move the plot (yes, there is one), but the joy of Mamma Mia is in all its relationships. And songs. Oh yes, the songs.
Love between girlfriends, new couples, old lovers, mothers & daughters, and the love of a special place on earth entwine like the eye-popping bougainvillea gracing the set. The bride (Amanda Seyfried, surprising me yet again) is adorable. The mother (Meryl Streep, a bottomless pit of delightful surprises) is relatable and cool. The fiancÃ© (Dominic Cooper) is scrumptious. The best friends (Christine Baranski and Julie Walters) — a hoot. The old lovers (Skellan Skarsgard, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth) — dreamy. The Greek chorus is maybe unfairly too anonymous but they are darling.
If you didn’t know, the songs are all ABBA songs, reorchestrated and jiggered a bit to fit the story. Giving Abba Gold a fresh listen, it’s evident their songs were written with a story in mind for each of them, unlike the techno dance hits (uhn-tss-uhn-tss) of more recent years. The songs are, more often than you remember, in a minor key, driving a certain tension, even darkness or danger, below the soaring vocals or peppy tempos. It’s a gleefully appropriate score for a musical about so many kinds of feelings. A happy side effect of the familiar songs, besides being able to sing along loudly in harmony (I please the 5th), is the sense of joining in the moment. Three gal pals burst into song much more often in real life than anti-musical curmudgeons care to admit — but we do it to songs we already know. Roping the audience into this delicious conspiracy feels like a personal invitation into their glee. Using pop songs to carry a musical isn’t only as recent as Across the Universe or Moulin Rouge — lots of Golden Age musicals were scored with serendipitous standards.
Movie musicals also benefits from extra built-in chemistry among the cast due to all the extra rehearsal. A regular film might shoot a love scene on the first day the actors have met! That can’t compete with three intense weeks in sweatpants in a warehouse jumping around like loons together. The staging and choreography is funny and accessible and o-able — more like your friends dancing for pleasure than intense pros West Side Storying it up the lane in tandem. This lends to the “we’re all just winging it” feel which gives the movie a close intimacy (as do the heart-stopping close-ups).
The story is simple: a single mom’s daughter, wondering which of her mom’s old flames is her dad, invites all three candidates to her wedding. Obviously chaos ensues. The stakes are high (paternity!) and the feelings run higher (A daughter! A family! A secret! An old love!) and the whole hard core emotional event is distilled into a rapturous froth from which I have not yet emerged. While the character’s actions are impulsive (even by musical theatre standards), most of them feel like real people whom you might know and adore. Streep’s Donna is so full of life and love and vim that you just want to jump into the movie to lend a hand.
The whole film is moving and fun and scenic and ecstatic, and we cried too. You may already know if this is not your thing, but I hope you take a chance take a take a chance chance on Mamma Mia even if you think you won’t like it. The rest of you who are already in line: bring a diaper — the combined powers of Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan, Dominic Sky, and Phillip Michael will ruin your delicates.
MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 7/18/08
Time in minutes 108
Director Phyllida Lloyd
Studio Universal Pictures