MAMMA MIA! (2008) : P.Lloyd : 5/10

IN A NUTSHELL : Ropey but intermittently enjoyable big-screen version of the smash-hit musical, kept afloat by the valiant efforts of super-trouper Meryl Streep.

In his utterly fantastic This Is Uncool: The 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk and Disco, Garry Mulholland outlines an interesting theory: that Abba and Joy Division seem to have a fair bit in common, lyrically at least. … He points out that the first line of ‘Knowing Me Knowing You’ is: ‘No more carefree laughter/silence ever after.’ Put this after Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart,’ he says, and you wouldn’t miss a beat.
Ed, 17 Seconds, September 12th 2006 

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It’s apparently the fate of Scandinavian pop-acts to be lucratively misunderstood. Though often dismissed as 80s boy-band pin-up fodder, Norwegian trio a-Ha were, on closer inspection, frequently Bergmanesque in their lyrical bleakness: “Where joy should reign, these skies restrain,” they assert on ‘Stay on These Roads,’ while they’re responsible for what must be the only UK number one to borrow directly from Franz Kafka’s diaries: “Please don’t ask me to defend / The shameful lowlands of the way I’m drifting / Gloomily through time” (‘The Sun Always Shines on TV.’)

And As Garry Mulholland noted, there was always much more to the legendarily successful Swedish/Norwegian combo ABBA than breezily upbeat tracks like ‘Ring Ring’ or ‘Dancing Queen’ would suggest. This is part of the reason why Mamma Mia! – both this new film and the long-running stage-musical on which it’s based – represents such a frustratingly missed opportunity. The ABBA songbook, with all its nuances and complexities, has become little more than a pretext for a raucous girls’ night out: it’s no surprise to find that neither version includes the track many critics and fans reckon to be the band’s crowning achievement, 1981’s fascinatingly neurotic / sinister / poignant ‘The Day Before You Came.’

There’s nothing wrong with shameless escapism per se, of course, and taken purely on those limited terms Mamma Mia! a success. Though derided by many critics (“absolute cack” – Robert Hanks, The Independent), it does have a certain frenetic buoyancy that will satisfy audiences in search of an undemanding good time. They won’t give a hoot that all their favourite ABBA songs (with notable exceptions including ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ and ‘The Name of the Game’) are shoehorned in and around a rickety plot that might pass muster on stage but looks somewhat deficient up on the big screen.

An American expat in her fifties, free-spirited Donna (Meryl Streep) has been running her hill-top bed-and-breakfast establishment on a Greek island for 15 years with the help of various grinningly jovial (but largely mute) locals and her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried). As the film begins, Sophie is about to get married to her British boyfriend Sky (Dominic Cooper), and she has invited her father along to the nuptials. While Sophie doesn’t actually know who her dad is, she’s identified three prime candidates after stumbling across her mother’s tell-(nearly)-all old diary: Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), Harry (Colin Firth) and Sam (Pierce Brosnan). Posing as Donna, Sophie sends invites to all three – who duly turn up, prompting all manner of complications and confusions all the way to the altar and beyond.

The basic set-up borrows heavily from the 1968 Gina Lollobrigida vehicle Buona Sera, Mrs Campbell, while the daughter-and-three-dads idea also cropping up in Shirley Conran’s rather trashier Lace 2 –  though Mamma Mia! is much too sunny to have Sophie emulate Conran’s heroine by snarling “Which one of you bastards is my father?”  The idea for a musical stringing together ABBA songs reportedly dates back as far as 1983, when producer Judy Craymer put the idea to the band’s main songwriters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. They were reportedly “not enthusiastic”, being much more concerned with the aftermath of the group’s rather messy break-up, not to mention preparations for their own stage musical, Chess.

It was more than a decade later before Mamma Mia! started to come together – the unexpected popularity of Australian bittersweet comedy Muriel’s Wedding (1994), in which ABBA tracks featured very prominently, was surely a factor – and the show premiered in London’s West End in March 1999, relocating to its present home at the Prince of Wales’s Theatre in June 2004. The show has been a roaring success, with at least eight other stagings currently taking place in major venues around the world. The cheapest stalls seat at the Prince of Wales will set you back a hefty  £35 – making the film version of Mamma Mia! a tempting option for those who either can’t get to London (or their nearest equivalent city), or who balk at shelling out such a sum.

The film thus functions as a replication of and a replacement for the stage-show – and also a reminder for those who’ve seen the original in a theatre and who so far will have had to make do with a CD recording of the score. One problem with this is that the movie has been cast with actors selected for their box-office appeal and big-screen experience rather than their singing or dancing skills – and there’s a full range of each on show here, from Seyfried’s Aegean-clear tones to Brosnan’s game but belaboured efforts (rather more of a stretch than his Guinness-swilling pub-singer from 2002’s Evelyn.) Not that Skarsgard or Firth fare much better, and seldom has Jonathan Pryce – a talented, versatile singer who’s only a couple of years older than Streep – been so sorely missed!

In addition, there’s the underlying issue that ABBA’s songs were, for the most part, written to be sung by both of the band’s female members. The complexities of the vocal arrangements have proved troublesome for TV talent-show contestants all over the world, and the songs aren’t served at all well by being turned into solos or group numbers – not to mention the fact that the subject-matter of the lyrics is usually only tangentially connected with what’s going on in the story at the time.

This causes an unforeseen problem during Cooper’s rendition of ‘Lay All Your Love on Me,’ which includes the line “You’ve heard me saying that smoking was my only vice” – illustrated by Cooper waving an unlit cigar around and occasionally popping it into his mouth. Stick around for the closing credits, and you’ll find a solemn warning about what is described as “tobacco consumption,” even though Cooper’s character never actually consumes any of the evil weed itself: “The depictions of tobacco smoking contained in this film are based solely on artistic consideration and are not intended to promote tobacco consumption. The U.S. Surgeon-General has determined that there are serious health risks associated with smoking and second-hand smoke.” This may well become standard-issue with movies from Universal Studios, who inserted the disclaimer at the end of their recent Incredible Hulk re-boot after the American Medical Association took offence at the “cigar-chomping” antics of General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross.

They already end all of their films’ credits with an advert for their Mediterranea resort in Spain – its presence somewhat ironic in Mamma Mia!, which presents such a picturesque vision of the Aegean that you wonder if the Greek tourist board had some kind of hand in its production. But if Greece comes out of Mamma Mia! very nicely, thank you, that isn’t really true of the Greeks themselves. It’s rather witty to have a gaggle of locals pop up as an ad-hoc ‘Greek’ chorus, but it’s also disappointing that we hardly hear a word of spoken dialogue from any of the folk themselves. They’re serene peasants and/or servants, providing unintrusive background colour but most definitely secondary to the Americans, British, Irish and Swedes. In this context, it seems odd that Sophie should sound as American as her mother – where did she go to school? Why are her two bridesmaid pals an American and a Scot? Would it have harmed the film to have given her a Greek friend or two?

Mamma Mia! is such a daft confection of course, that it’s not really sensible to dwell too deeply on such nagging concerns, or the chronological confusions that abound: the action seems to be taking place in 1999, with Sophie born 20 years earlier – so why does Bill remark that his dalliance with Donna took place in the era of “peace and love”? For much of the running-time, however, Mamma Mia! is saved and indeed elevated by its one massive trump card: so long as it’s The Meryl Streep Show, proceedings are sufficiently classy and engaging that even the most skeptical audience may find themselves won over. Though stuck in yet another unworthy project (in the wake of The Devil Wears Prada and Rendition), Streep literally throws herself into her role with brave abandon, pulling the movie into shape around her through sheer will-power – and it’s surely no accident that she featured so prominently in what’s still the most satisfying American musical film of the decade, Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion.

Other than that, the form has delivered disappointments and duds in roughly equal measure, from Joel Schumacher’s nightmarishly misbegotten Phantom of the Opera to the overblown, overrated Chicago and Dreamgirls, to Tim Burton’s clunky Sweeney Todd. Mamma Mia! may have many faults, but it’s a class or two above the unendurable big-screen adaptation of The Producers from 2005 – though in both instances the studios erred by presuming that the director who’d created the stage show would be able to transfer their success to the entirely different medium of cinema. This represented a major gamble, as neither Susan Stroman (of The Producers) nor Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) had ever directed a movie before – and in the latter case the screenwriter Catherine Johnson, also closely associated with the stage musical, had only a sole feature credit to her name (1994’s little-seen Sin Bin).

Lloyd fares better than Stroman, but still seems to be learning on the job here – trying out hand-held camerawork, putting light gauze in front of the lens now and then, cutting from shot to shot whenever the mood takes her, awkwardly combining location-work and material evidently shot on a sound-stage, not bothering if the characters take a break from lip-synching in the middle of songs. It’s just as well she was able to hand over her footage to a veteran of the cutting-room: Lesley Walker assisted John Bloom on cutting Funeral In Berlin (1966), and was responsible for Mona Lisa, Cry Freedom and numerous projects for Terry Gilliam and Richard Attenborough – not to mention another tale of bittersweet Mediterranean love, Lewis Gilbert’s Shirley Valentine (1989).

Of course, there’s no rule to say that a 50-year-old, famed for their work in other spheres, can’t make a successful if belated directorial debut: look at Anton Corbijn and his brilliant, monochrome Ian Curtis biopic Control. Which is, ah yes, kind of where we came in, isn’t it?

Neil Young


109m (BBFC timing)

director : Phyllida Lloyd (debut)
editor : Lesley Walker (Closing the Ring, Tideland, The Brothers Grimm, etc)

seen 17.July.08 Sunderland (Empire cinema :  £5.80)