MOVIE REVIEW: MAMMA MIA!
Official disclaimer: I have seen the stage musical version of Mamma Mia! six times. My wife and I first saw it in London, and as we walked out at the end of the exciting encore, we both turned to each other and said “I could see that again.” Two days later we did. This show has been seen in 140 cities by 30 million people worldwide and has grossed over $2 billion.
This could be the feel-good musical of the summer. The fact that it opens in the US on the same day as the Batman sequel The Dark Knight, however, does cast a shadow over its debut.
Calling it a “chick flick” is not entirely inaccurate — the theater was full of older couples and women — but the movie is really for any fans of ABBA music or of the stage musical. This film was done in partnership with Playtone, Tom Hank’s production company. His wife Rita Wilson (producer of My Big Fat Greek Wedding) was executive producer on this.
Sophie, a young 20-year-old girl on a Greek island wants to invite her father to her wedding and upon reading her single-parent mother Donna’s old diary learns she has three possible fathers. She invites them all to her wedding without her mother’s knowledge. The girl invites her two friends to her wedding, her mother invites her two former girl-group backup singer friends, and the three “fathers” make for interesting Greek intrigue.
Possible father #1 is Swedish travel writer Bill played by Stellan Skarsgård who is best known recently as “Bootstrap Bill” Turner in the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
Colin Firth (our favorite Mister Darcy in Pride and Prejudice) is always great to see, especially in comedies (think Bridget Jones). He plays Harry, the proper British banker and possible father #2.
Pierce Brosnan plays American architect Sam, frequently successfully hiding his Irish accent. He’s part of the draw for this movie as possible father #3, and my wife couldn’t wait to see “James Bond singing in spandex.” The natural question, of course, is: can he sing? Let me put it this way — he wasn’t hired for his musical talents. Nevertheless, he does an acceptable job on a couple of difficult pieces, especially a duet with Meryl on S.O.S., indeed better than the male lead in London. And he brings such emotion to his singing — like an Irishman? — as well as his performance. He’s very credible in the role, and makes the interplay with Meryl winning.
Julie Walters as Donna’s friend Rosie is perhaps unfamiliar to American audiences, except as Mrs. Weasley from the Harry Potter movies. However, in the UK, she’s major league, especially as the elderly cleaning lady Mrs. Overall in the mid-’80s cult TV soap opera parody Acorn Antiques. I saw her do a stage musical version of this in London — the night after I saw Mamma Mia the first time — and she brought down the house. She’s perfectly cast in this role and has some fabulous lines and humorous scenes. And she steals the scene with Take a Chance.
Christine Baranski the Tony-winning actress — who you probably best remember from the TV sitcom Cybill — is featured here as Donna’s sophisticated and serially monogamous friend Tanya. She’s gorgeous and hilarious, especially in her vampy scenes.
Amanda Seyfried as the daughter and bride-to-be is luminously cute, a young Aphrodite. She previously played the part of a dim but beautiful teen in the popular movie Mean Girls. While she has a pleasant voice, it wasn’t as strong as I’d have liked. Nevertheless, she handled all her songs well even if she didn’t hit them out of the park.
Meryl Streep plays the starring role as Donna, the former girl group lead singer and free spirit. I was initially concerned about this casting, as she’s 59, and Donna is no older than her early 40s. Indeed, almost all of the adult cast is in their mid to late 50s. But this is not really a story about young love but love in the autumn years. And while Meryl’s early songs seemed a little rough, her later songs were solid hits. She’s sung in Postcards From the Edge and A Prairie Home Companion and her work here is some of the most demanding. At the end of the film, you appreciate her acting and emotional impact, wondering how anyone else could have done the role.
There were over 20 ABBA songs in the movie. Three songs from the stage musical didn’t make it to the film, another was cut from the film, but one ABBA song was included that didn’t appear in the stage show: When All is Said and Done done by Pierce Brosnan near the end of the movie.
The film was obviously filmed in the Greek islands, particularly Skopelos and Skiathos and they’re lovely. The sound stage filming was done on the 007 stage at Pinewood Studios. Pierce Brosnan must have felt at home.
ABBA male leads Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson appear in uncredited cameos in the film. If you look quickly you’ll see the later in the vivacious first performance of Dancing Queen. This film was first released in Europe and Down Under, and the debut party in Sweden also featured the two female leads Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Faltskog. The last time they were photographed was over 20 years ago.
Slipping Through My Fingers is the song that causes the U-turn in sentiment as the film gets downright misty.
The Winner Takes It All shows Meryl Streep’s chops as a singer and an artist. Her expressiveness and emotion is all on her face and movement. This song belies some of the earlier songs in the movie where she isn’t always exactly spot on. This is the pinnacle of the movie and you know it when you see it. She did it in one take.
The movie is superior to the stage performance in telling the story. There is an opportunity with a larger canvas to do a larger exposition. The players are better as both actors and comedians with some fabulous casting of an all-star cast. And of course, the Greek island setting is magical.
The movie is inferior to the stage performance in its staging. The choreography is surprisingly poor, the dance scenes seem agoraphobic and much less impactful. And in general, the singing voices are not as good, but then the performers here weren’t selected for their singing prowess. The same producers of the stage musical made this movie — their first — and it shows.
For example, the musical-to-movie Hairspray was successful on so many levels that this movie was not, even though Mamma Mia was a more delightful and satisfying stage musical than Hairspray.
You go to the movie for the cast and the music. The infectious ABBA songs are woven through the story, which makes a surprisingly good vehicle for the music. You’re not supposed to notice that songs like Our Last Summer are situated in Paris or talk about “Flower Power” which would have been 20 years too early.
The movie is charming and sweet. You’ll sing along, if you’re old enough to remember the songs, in the same way you stood up to dance at the end if you saw the stage musical.
You WILL sit through the end credits at the end. Not only will you catch the encore featuring the spandex, but the last scene features some surprising mythological Olympian gods.
You’ll like it if: you’re a Boomer, keen on ABBA, love musicals, great performances, a bit of randy humor.
You won’t like it if: you don’t favor spandex or Swedish pop music that sticks in your mind like gum.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood culturevulture