by Ken B.
There’s a scene in Mamma Mia! that plays out like a pop culture journalist’s fever dream (well, that’s almost every scene in Mamma Mia!, but this one in particular): Meryl Streep, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, and thirty or forty nameless extras dancing on a pier, belting out ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”. Benny Andersson has a five second cameo as a piano player on a boat during that sequence. It is indeed something to behold. If you’ve ever wondered what would happen when a handful of world famous actors got together for 108 minutes and told a flimsy story through relentlessly bouncy covers of ABBA songs, this is your chance to see that visualized.
The story is set on a Greek island, where Donna (Streep) has run an old hotel for several years. Her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is about to get married to a man named Sky (Dominic Cooper). Sophie wants her father to attend her wedding, but Donna was a single mother, and she doesn’t know who to invite. Instead, after investigating her mother’s diary from years ago, she secretly sends out invitations to three possibilities: banker Harry Bright (Colin Firth), architect Sam Carmichael (Pierce Brosnan), and writer Bill Anderson (Stellan Skarsgård). She hopes to identify her father from the moment she sees him. Of course, it won’t be that easy.
The first thing to be addressed in a musical is the music. Every song, of course, is a cover of a song by ABBA. If you’re familiar with their discography, you know what to expect. The singers range. Meryl Streep is quite good (is there anything she can’t do?), as is Amanda Seyfried, a fact that would be solidified a few years later in Les Misérables. Everyone else falls somewhere along the mid range of tolerability, except Brosnan. A large part of his career has been sealed in the history books as the James Bond of the mid ‘90s and early ‘00s, and to put it nicely, singing won’t be joining those ranks anytime in the near future. Or ever.
It’s clear the primary ideals of Mamma Mia! were not particularly artistic. Its demands were simple: Provide two hours of light entertainment packed with music that will both suit fans of comedies, ABBA, and the popular stage musical it’s based on. It doesn’t particularly care about fleshing out a story, or even a compelling place to put the songs. They seem too deliberate to exist (kind of like those vocabulary assignments you got when you were ten where you had to put all of the words of the week in sentences, and it was always really forced). Because that’s how the placement of the music comes off in Mamma Mia!, it really hurts the overall flow of the film at times.
Still, there’s little ability to deny an overwhelming sense of fun Phyllida Lloyd’s film contains. The scenery is picturesque, the pacing is bouncy, and the cast seems to be genuinely enjoying themselves, regardless of how good (or bad) their singing is. There comes a time when an otherwise totally non-recommendable film can keep its head above water on entertainment value alone, and Mamma Mia! fulfills that quota with impressive ease.
There’s almost no doubt in my mind that the reason Mamma Mia! was released in the same weekend as The Dark Knight in July 2008 was to generate sufficient counter-programming to the bleak and depressing world the middle entry of Nolan’s saga represents. Indeed, while the superhero film reigns far superior in my book, Mamma Mia! has a well formed idea of what its own demographic will want, and does indeed fulfill it for the most part. This is a casually fascinating movie, and quite easy to comprehend. Its target audiences already knows it will like it, and those outside of it know they won’t.