Sunday, July 21, 2013

Movie Musicals That Got It Right: Mamma Mia!

My last few posts have been a bit cranky, so time for something cheerful.  And few things are more cheerful than the 2008 musical, Mamma Mia!.

Mamma Mia! is based on the hugely popular West End jukebox musical, which was built from popular tunes by ABBA.  For those who don't know, ABBA was the first non-English-speaking band to enjoy huge success in the English-speaking pop world.  The band consisted of two men and two women from Sweden, and lasted from 1972 until 1982.  Even if you hate pop, you can't escape their songs, which include "Fernando," "SOS," and "Dancing Queen."

In 1997, British playwright Catherine Johnson wrote the stage musical, which premiered in London in 1999.  It was a smash, and made its Broadway debut in 2001, where it has played nonstop ever since.  From there, it was only a matter of time before a movie version premiered.

That movie came in 2008, and went on to gross $600 million worldwide.  All of this success came on the back of a simple, almost flimsy, story: Sophie is getting married and wants to invite her dad.  Problem is, she doesn't know who he is.  After reading her mother Donna's old journal, she narrows it down to three men -- Sam, Bill, and Harry -- and invites all three.  Wacky hijinks ensue!

Of course it helps that Sophie is played by a winsome Amanda Seyfried, and that Donna is played by grande dame Meryl Streep.  And that Colin Firth and Pierce Brosnan compose two-thirds of the male trio (Stellan Skarsgard is noteworthy, too, though lesser known).  And that the wedding is set on a picturesque Greek island, where everyone knows each other and no one seems to work.  All of these elements, combined with the ABBA songs, makes Mamma Mia! an energetic good time.

Does that make it a great movie?  Definitely not.  Mamma Mia! can drag for stretches, and its flimsy premise could have been resolved in a half hour.  As for why I put it in the Right column, I'll confess that I'm grading on a big curve.  Had Mamma Mia! the grandiose aspirations of Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, or Evita, I would call it an utter failure.  Yet all Mamma Mia! wants to do is be infectious and fun, and get you to sing along with ABBA.  In those goals, it succeeded.  Whereas Across the Universe, the other jukebox musical I reviewed, aspired to be Something New and Different and was too often cliche.  So I guess the lesson is to set very modest ambitions so you can meet them?  That sounds... fair.

Maybe years from now, I'll shake up the list and place Across the Universe in the Right column and Mamma Mia! in the Wrong column.  But for now, I'll say that there's a place for a fun, frothy musical that just wants to make people feel good.        

The Good

1.  Eye Candy.  In every sense.  The Greek island location is picture perfect and the Mediterranean looks like a giant swimming pool.  Everyone is tan and dressed in bright colors.  Donna's hotel is just old enough to look quaint.  And for some, Amanda Seyfried is easy on the eyes, while others will be drawn to Pierce Brosnan's smile, or Sophie's hunky fiance.

I would venture that this is one of the rare movies that offers more eye candy to straight women (and gay men) than to straight men.  You can't beat a row of bronzed, buffed men dancing in fins.

2.  ABBA Songs.  I've always enjoyed ABBA songs, but this movie made me appreciate their range.  Just about everyone knows "Dancing Queen," but I had never heard the touching, introspective "Our Last Summer."  Overall, the movie does a nice job showcasing the ABBA catalogue.  The songs are staged with energy and flair, such as when Sophie's fiance expresses his jealousy, or when Donna learns that her past lovers are near.  There are a number of big group sings, and let's just say that the long pier gets used a lot.  Make you want to sing along?  Oh yes.         

3.  Energy.  The cast look as though they're having fun, and that comes through the screen.  That includes Donna's friends, played by Julie Walters and Christine Baranski (is she in every musical movie?).  Ageist as this sounds, I didn't think Meryl Streep could still move like that.

Also, the singing isn't half bad, with one notable exception.  Madame Meryl belts quite nicely, and Seyfried -- not shockingly -- seems much more comfortable singing ABBA tunes than "A Heart Full of Love."

The Bad

1.  Thin Story.  It's not surprising that after a while, the movie feels like one long music video, with a few breaks in between with dialogue.  There is so little to resolve: the three men arrive; Sophie tries to learn which one is her father; and Donna works out some unresolved anger.  The characters are little more than types.  Bill is adventurous; Sam is square; Harry is an even bigger square.  Donna is still a hippie at heart, and Sophie is sweet and irrepressible.

Sophie keeps claiming that some part of her is "missing" without her father, but it's hard to see what.  Her life seems pretty darn good -- cool mom, sexy boyfriend, island paradise.  That Sophie could want something more is dealt with half-heartedly, such as in a quick scene where Sam discusses her drawings.  

Again, I should mention that what separates Mamma Mia! from Evita, which was also one long music video, is that the latter had grand pretensions that it was something more, while Mamma Mia! never does.

2.  The Acting.  The acting in this movie tends to fall into extremes: either people overact, or they don't act at all.  In the overacting category is Amanda Seyfried, who seems ready to burst from excitement at any moment.  Meryl Streep also fits here.  Grande dame or not, Streep's acting is weakest whenever she plays normal women with romantic problems.  Give me Miranda Priestly or Julia Child any day.  The woman needs a character to sink her teeth into, and Donna has none.  Worst, the movie requires cringeworthy moments from Streep, such as bursting into hysterical tears after seeing her former lovers.  Still, I'm sure Streep had a ball.

In the non-acting category are Brosnan and Firth.  Brosnan occasionally shows glimmers of life, but then his eyes deaden once more.

3.  Pierce Brosnan's Singing.  So how bad is it?  Better or worse than Russell Crowe's Javert?  Judge for yourself.  To my ears, they sound roughly the same.  I'll give Crowe the edge for having more challenging material to work with.  And for not being aided by Autotune.


Mamma Mia! is not a great musical overall, but it's good for what it wants to be.  When I saw it a few days ago, I started depressed about my day, but ended humming "Dancing Queen."

Other Movie Musicals That Got It Right: Dreamgirls, Les Miserables, Chicago

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: The Phantom of the Opera, Evita, RENT, Across the Universe

The above image is used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

1 comment:

  1. A very touching movie musical a story about the relationship between mother, daughter.

    Mamma Mia Tickets