Mamma Mia! (review)

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Out of Tune

If there’s one thing that’s clear from this revue of ABBA’s hit songs, it’s that there really aren’t all that many great ABBA songs, hits or no. “Dancing Queen,” sure, and “Take a Chance on Me” are pretty catchy, I’ll grant, and maybe it’s just me and my appreciation of ABBA that is obviously even more limited than I thought it was, but it’s only during these two tunes — staged with much bouncy dancing about and enthusiastic but inadequate crooning by less than professional singers — when this forced, contrived film adaptation of the stage production sparks to genuine life. Maybe British theater director Phyllida Lloyd, making her feature debut here, feels the same way I do about ABBA. But then why would she take on a project like this in the first place?
For all I know, the stage version is forced and contrived, too — I haven’t seen it, but it’s hard to see how it wouldn’t be, what with the tepid tale that’s shoehorned around the songs, which mostly treads water getting from one earnestly mounted tune to the next. It seems that young Sophie (Amanda Seyfried: Alpha Dog, Nine Lives), on the eve of her wedding to young Sky (Dominic Cooper: Sense & Sensibility, The History Boys), has decided that now is the time to figure out who her father is: it seems it could be one of three former lovers of her mother’s, Donna (Meryl Streep: Lions for Lambs, Rendition). So she invites each of the men — Bill (Stellan Skarsgård: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Beowulf & Grendel), Sam (Pierce Brosnan: Married Life, Seraphim Falls), and Harry (Colin Firth: The Last Legion, Nanny McPhee) — to her wedding, to take place on the impossibly beautiful and remote Greek island where Donna and daughter have made a home. Family reunion and happiness, Sophie assumes, will ensue: mostly, in Catherine Johnson’s book/script, it’s wacky comedy of a brand that one had thought had gone out with Technicolor.

There’s something a little creepy about the prospect of a young woman comtemplating in such intimate detail her mother’s sex life — particularly when it transpires that Sophie has stolen the diary her mother kept of the summer when she was conceived, and oohs and ahhs over Donna’s descriptions of her romantic adventures. And later, when the men arrive on the island and enmesh themselves in the wedding preparations, there are moments when the movie seems to be debating with itself whether Sophie’s interactions with her potential fathers borders on the potentially incestuous.

Again, that could be just me. I know I’m old now, when I find myself identifying far more with Donna and her pals, Rosie (Julie Walters: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Becoming Jane) and Tanya (Christine Baranski: Welcome to Mooseport, Marci X), all of whom are spunky and spirited and wild and old enough to be my mother, and Donna’s men, who are charming and delicious, than I do with Sophie and Sky, who are young enough to be my children, and seem bland and unfinished to me. Which raises other issues of temporal significance, actually, in how Donna is nowhere near young enough to have been the carefree child we’re meant to believe she was when Sophie was carelessly conceived twenty years earlier, or how her men can possibly span every era from the flower power of the 60s to the New Wave punk of the 80s: it seems to suggest, in fact, that Sophie could well be anywhere from 20 to 40 years old. Which is patently absurd.

As always, none of the nonsensicalness would matter if the movie would let me get caught up in it, but that hardly happened, much as I wished it would: I appreciate the particular Swedishness of its casual attitude toward sex and love and single motherhood, and its embracing of the idea that women — you know, actual females over the age of 25 — are not only entitled to lives of their own but actually enjoy them. (And by that, I mean, that women of a certain age still like sex.) But the stagey phoniness of it all isn’t helped by the fact that only Streep is up to the musical task at hand — boy, can she sing! The youngsters are fine, of course, in that technically proficient but bloodless way of young singers, but the passion of the others — Walters, Baranski, Firth, Brosnan, and Skarsgård — gets lost in their struggles with the songs.

Whether it’s worth two hours out of your life to see Streep sing her heart out depends on how in love with Streep you are, or want to be.

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Fri, Jul 18, 2008 9:44am

It’s a very entertaining stage production, but I didn’t see how it could turn into a very entertaining movie.

Did they at least do the flipper dance?

Fri, Jul 18, 2008 11:46am

Yes, there’s a flipper dance.

You mean people are looking forward to that?

Fri, Jul 18, 2008 12:57pm

I’m looking forward to music but Pierce Brosnan singing does not make sense.

Fri, Jul 18, 2008 1:07pm

Well, to be fair, he doesn’t really sing: more just kinda talks his way through the songs.

Fri, Jul 18, 2008 2:00pm

Hey, the flipper dance on stage takes a hell of a lot of leg strength to pull off.

Amy S.
Sat, Jul 19, 2008 11:26am

Having seen and enjoyed the stage production, when I saw the trailer for this I thought it would be a fun outing. I agree regarding ABBA and it’s two hits or perhaps three? It was very poorly executed but the audience I saw it with clapped and really liked it. Average age definitely over 45. I’m a Gen x-er so there were a few my age in the group and a few couples but mostly women.

This was a 4:15 show on Friday– I had just seen The Dark Knight so decided to just stay on for something else and there’s not much to choose from! Streep enjoys herself and looks very pretty in that natural hippy-girl way and Amanda Seyfried from Big Love is lovely, she did a decent enough job.

Oh, and I have to add, I caught a Today show interview with Streep and it was as if she has never sang in a film before. She did Prairie Home Companion in 2006. But that’s too indie… sigh.

Sat, Jul 19, 2008 11:36pm

Firstly, many Americans just don’t get ABBA: the music is folk European in origin and bears little relationship to blues, jazz, soul, r’n’b – the roots of American music; so it’s perhaps understandable. Secondly, it’s pop music, and because ABBA were prime exponents their popularity and contribution to a maligned genre has been derided for decades. Anyone familiar with their work knows ABBA produced many great songs, especially given their relatively small output, and the reason they are still hugely popular is that the songs were given the best production possible – much of their work now sounds timeless and irreproducible. So I wish critics would stop patronising ABBA’s success and just acknowledge that they were one of the greatest – if not THE greatest – pop group ever. They were certainly the biggest pop group on the planet in the 1970s, and it was a completely unprecedented achievement for a Swedish group.
But here’s the rub with Mamma Mia! The Movie: Benny & Bjorn have tarnished their own legacy and trashed Agnetha and Frida’s contributions by approving the use of actors rather than singers. If Phyllida Lloyd had cast great actor/singers – of which there are thousands – then the movie may well have been more than an hysterical camp fiasco. I thought the stage production was bearable because it was mostly faithful to the original song arrangements, but once you chuck out the singing you lose sight of the musical’s purpose: hearing great popular songs in a new context. When the lead actors in a musical can’t even sing…what’s the point?

Sun, Jul 20, 2008 11:25am

So I wish critics would stop patronising ABBA’s success and just acknowledge that they were one of the greatest – if not THE greatest – pop group ever.

I’m sorry, I must have missed the completely objective, factual, non-opinion-based ruling from humanity that named ABBA the greatest pop group ever.

Skeptical Cat
Sun, Jul 20, 2008 9:14pm

I’m sorry, I must have missed the completely objective, factual, non-opinion-based ruling from humanity that named ABBA the greatest pop group ever.


Sun, Jul 20, 2008 11:30pm

I think Abba seems to have passed america by.

BUT everywhere else they were huge and had enough hits for two of these films!

I think one of their shows that was shown live in Australia is still the most watched Australian TV programme ever.

Mon, Jul 21, 2008 4:05pm

I actually have ABBA, so it hasn’t totally passed America by yet. Most people really haven’t heard enough of their music though.

Tue, Jul 22, 2008 11:31pm

Many professional musicians openly acknowledge ABBA’s talent, so I guess the whole ‘one hit wonder’ kitsch view is an American thing.
The name of the game
The winner takes it all
Gimme Gimme Gimme!
Slipping through my fingers
they all speak for themselve… and I know that record sales are sometimes no indication of the quality of the music (Britney comes to mind, crazy as she is now, her last album still sold a considerable amount), but ABBA’s numbers are in the hundreds of millions. there must be SOMETHING that you’re missing, especially because these songs have been around for over 30 years, in spite of this kind of criticism. That’s OK, we’re all individuals and not everyone has to like the same things, but saying that ‘there aren’t that many great ABBA songs’ is a pretty big statement.

Wed, Jul 23, 2008 6:35am

Thanks, Miguel, even if you weren’t actually directly acknowledging my post. I’m surprised, MaryAnn, that you should choose to respond so cattily to my relatively informed opinion. Here in Australia, for a couple of years, ABBA were actually bigger than the Beatles ever were: on their first promotional trip to Australia a documented 250,000 people went to Adelaide airport – half the entire city population – to greet their arrival. When ABBA announced their first-ever performances at London’s Royal Albert Hall there were 5 MILLION ticket applications. So please don’t flaunt your cluelessness and regurgitate received American opinion that ABBA were commercial and musical lightweights. They wisely decided against touring America for years because they already had the rest of the world in the bag. And I think at last count thay had more than a dozen American Top 40 hits without ever doing a large-scale tour; a very impressive achievement for a foreign group. Hey, I’m a fan.

Wed, Jul 23, 2008 6:45am

Oh yeah, and you also conveniently overlooked the point of my first post – the songs in the movie are very poorly served as they’re so badly sung (even though the arrangements by Benny are great). As many musicians will attest, ABBA’s songs are extremely difficult to perform well, hence the original recordings’ continuing popularity.

Wed, Jul 23, 2008 8:07am

Grant, I don’t think you’ll be able to convert many Americans. They have grown up thinking ABBA is cheesy, disco music, and we can’t change that.

Tonio Kruger
Wed, Jul 23, 2008 1:11pm

Grant, I don’t think you’ll be able to convert many Americans. They have grown up thinking ABBA is cheesy, disco music, and we can’t change that.

No, we didn’t. My sister and I loved Abba–and we are Americans. In fact, when we were teenagers, we used to fight over which one of us got to buy the latest single. (My father didn’t like us owning copies of the same single as long as we lived in the same house.)

My older cousins in Detroit also listened to Abba as did a friend of mine in the local Catholic Singles group.

But if MaryAnn doesn’t care for Abba songs, that’s ultimately her loss, not ours.

Anyway, after seeing excerpts from this movie on YouTube, it seems obvious that the movie didn’t do these songs justice. This doesn’t surprise me all that much. No one doubts the songwriting ability of Lennon and McCartney and yet no movie that features cover versions of their work–even Across the Universe really does justice to the original songs.

Wed, Jul 23, 2008 4:53pm

I’m surprised, MaryAnn, that you should choose to respond so cattily to my relatively informed opinion.

You’re new around here, I guess. I tend to take a pretty hard stance on anyone who suggests that matters of opinion are matters of fact. And on anyone who equates popularity with quality. And on anyone who suggests that I MUST like something if it’s popular.

So please don’t flaunt your cluelessness

My opinion is my opinion. It has nothing to do with how many people applied for tickets to an ABBA show. If you think that will make me like ABBA’s music, you’re mistaken.

Hey, I’m a fan.

That’s great. Really. I’m happy for you. Honestly. Would you allow me to be a nonfan? What difference does it make to you?

Do I really need to explicitly state, before every statement of mine that is clearly an opinion — such as “there really aren’t all that many great ABBA songs” — that this is merely my opinion? Isn’t that a given?

Wed, Jul 23, 2008 9:46pm

MaryAnn, I don’t understand why you should respond so strongly to an obviously unsupported “statement” that ABBA was the greatest pop band ever – of COURSE that’s an opinion! You stated your opinion of ABBA, an opinion that is regurgitated ad nauseum by those who don’t like ABBA – and ABBA’s music, curiously, does polarise people and always has. I mentioned ticket sales and crowds as a way of emphasising that ABBA were popular in a way never experienced in the US. Again, that doesn’t equate with any kind of subjective “excellence”. “I’m a fan” is me poking fun at myself for my knowledge of ABBA.
I have contributed a couple of times in response to your reviews, which I enjoy and greatly appreciate, but in this instance I think you should refrain from commenting on the quality of the music and stick with the quality of the film. “Mamma Mia!” is an archetypal jukebox musical, in which the songs are all (just like musicals were before “Oklahoma!”), so there’s no point in dissing the music; is the film any good? Your dismissal of the music unflatteringly coloured your critique.

Wed, Jul 23, 2008 10:06pm

And does your completely unwelcoming response to my posts reflect your usual manner with people you believe are “new around here”? Way to go with expanding your readership!

Amy S.
Thu, Jul 24, 2008 12:18pm

It’s about the film not the music, yes, but it is sometimes relevant for a critic to explain her relationship to a film, an actor, the music, the topic etc. It’s called criticism. These attacks are getting crazy.

For example, I reviewed the film Control and explained that I wasn’t all that familiar with the music of Joy Division and this didn’t detract from my review. But that wasn’t a musical.

The best example might be the mixed reviews on Across the Universe. Who argues about the validity of The Beatles? Yet the opinions on the film varied greatly.

Thu, Jul 24, 2008 2:42pm

Grant, you want to know whether “the film is any good.” Would you say that your ability to determine whether my take on that will be an accurate barometer of yours is more likely to succeed now that you know what I think of ABBA’s music, or less? If I had refrained my making my opinion of ABBA clear, would that have helped you make a better determination of whether “the film is any good”?

Thu, Jul 24, 2008 4:58pm

‘If there’s one thing that’s clear from this revue of ABBA’s hit songs, it’s that there really aren’t all that many great ABBA songs, hits or no’

I know its all opinion but i think that quote as annoyed tha Abba fans on here!

Just a quote of wikipedia.

‘On Saturday, March 20, 1976, at 6.30 pm, Australian TV’s Channel 9 broadcast “The Best of ABBA”, filmed during the group’s visit the week before. The transmission had more than half of the population watching: 54 percent of viewers according to contemporary reports, a record previously held by the moon landing in 1969. The record remains unbeaten as of 2007’

That kinda of explains the sort of following they had in other countries and why they are so vigorously defended by their fans.

But hey ive never liked Doctor Who but thats another story…

Thu, Jul 24, 2008 5:31pm

And if you were reviewing a Doctor Who movie, I’d be very grateful if you would let us know that you don’t much care for Doctor Who!

Karen R
Karen R
Tue, Jul 29, 2008 9:58am

MaryAnn wrote — “… but it’s only during these two tunes — staged with much bouncy dancing about and enthusiastic but inadequate crooning by less than professional singers — when this forced, contrived film adaptation of the stage production sparks to genuine life.”

And that’s only for these two tunes and that’s stretching it. I saw this film last night and found it so uncomfortably over-the-top I was embarrassed for the actors. The singing, with the occasional exception from the indomitable Streep and a not-bad ballad by Firth, was atrocious.

Yes, the flipper scene was there, but delivered with so much campy energy and direction that I thought those flippers would leap out of the screen and thwap me in the face.

Like someone wrote above, other women in the theatre — a group who looked not much older than me, but I guess were maybe more in their ’50s and early ’60s — seemed to enjoy it thoroughly. I was more than a little puzzled. There must be a study somewhere that’s explored wildly divergent reactions to a film by audience segments that aren’t visibly that divergent. ‘Cuz my cringing friend and I couldn’t have been farther from those other women than O’Neill is from Obama.

I felt bad for the actors. Bad for me. Bad for the Greek culture, which was relegated solely to a super-cliched Greek chorus — embarrassingly so.

I’m a little surprised, MaryAnn, that you didn’t give this an entire “skip it,” because usually you and I are right in synch.

So I say “skip it,” if you don’t feel like spending $10 on a cover-your-face embarrassment.

Sun, Aug 03, 2008 12:20pm

” ‘Mamma Mia!’ is an archetypal jukebox musical, in which the songs are all (just like musicals were before ‘Oklahoma!’)..”

Say what? I’m sure the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Rodgers & Hart, Cole Porter, etc., back in the 1920s and 30s and pre-Oklahoma 40s would not think of their carefully crafted scores as “jukebox musicals,” even if they reused material now and then and didn’t realize at the time that the music itself would be timeless, though the books for most (not all) of those musicals are sheer fluff with topical but now outdated jokes.

Yes, the 1920s and 30s (esp. the 20s — Al Jolson’s musicals being a prime example as his musicals were mainly an opportunity for him to get on stage and sing), had many frivolous musicals with barely existant plots and scores made up of songs from different composers, with producers inserting new songs into the show during its run just because they liked the number and thought it would sell slews of sheet music. That does not make these musicals “jukebox musicals.” (The 1930s (and the collapse of the Roaring Twenties into the hardbitten Depression era) saw more vigorous attempts by Rogers and Hart, the Gershwins et al. at integrating music with story.)

So — please don’t confuse pre-Oklahoma musicals, which consist of a wide variety of musical theater experience, with today’s “jukebox musicals.” Actually, I find today’s “jukebox musicals” are the antithesis of the pre-Oklahoma musical, as they trade in older songs and nostalgia, whereas all those musicals of the 1920s and 30s showed off the work of young composers who represented the newest and hottest trends in popular song, whether or not the music was good (much of it wasn’t) or the book was trivial or something more carefully wrought.

Besides, Oklahoma was by no means the first “book” musical — i.e., a show where the music was carefully crafted and integrated into the story. Yes, it was a monster hit because it WAS such a monumental achievement, with that glorious and entirely integrated score, its finely tuned story about people the audience could identify with, its flouting of stage convention, and, despite the 19th century setting, its treatment of issues extremely important to the war-riven world of 1943, issues that still resonate today. Naturally it spurred and inspired other musical theater writers to create work in the same mold and those are the musicals your local high school performs every year. But then, a new generation of writers was just coming up anyway and Oklahoma was the perfect model for what they wanted to do.

But Oklahoma built on a long tradition going back to the nineteen-teens of composer and writers who wanted to create musicals that integrated music and story. (Actually you can date that all integrated music and story stuff back to the Greeks and also the creation of opera in the Renaissance, and then onto opera composers like Gluck and Wagner and Verdi, but we’ll stick with American musical theater for now.) Oscar Hammerstein, who wrote the book and lyrics for Oklahoma, had been trying for years to craft integrated musicals in which the book, lyrics, and score all grow from a central idea and all contribute to the story line. In fact, he and Jerome Kern, who with Guy Bolton in the 1915-1920 Princess Theatre musicals had been trying the same thing, created Show Boat, still one of the finest (if structurally flawed) integrated musicals in the entire history of American musical theater.

Other examples of early book musicals pre-Oklahoma, besides those early Princess Theater musicals of Kern and Bolton and the aforementioned Show Boat, are the Gershwins’ Of Thee I Sing (which won a Pulitzer), Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey, George Gershwin’s and DuBose Heyward’s Porgy and Bess, Kurt Weill’s Lady in the Dark and others). If none of them had quite the effect Oklahoma did, it’s not for lack of trying.

Perhaps you were thinking of MOVIE musicals, such as films like Singin’ in the Rain and The Bandwagon (to name two examples) which are indeed “jukebox musicals” taking old songs and finding ways to make them work in stories for which they had never been intended. Or perhaps something like Broadway’s Crazy for You, which is really the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy reworked with a few other Gershwin numbers added in. The difference though is that a) those songs were at least created for a dramatic purpose either on stage or in very early movie musicals, unlike the pop/rock songs shoved into jukebox musicals; and b) many of those songs from the 1920s-30s had been entirely forgotten, but such films (and great singers like Frank Sinatra on his 50s Capitol label albums) resurrected them, shining the spotlight on a cultural treasure that had been left on a dusty shelf. We don’t realize today how many American popular classics really have only had that status since the 1950s when musicians began the process of re-discovery and re-interpretation. I guess the one similarity between the re-use of 1920s and 30s American popular song and the songs used in jukebox musicals is they can at least be re-purposed in such a way. You can’t take anything from the formal book musical, including the pre-Oklahoma ones, and re-use them in such a way.

Sometimes these “jukebox musicals” work and sometimes they don’t, but the appeal of them is hearing old songs you like (or love) performed, in new arrangements, by talented musical performers (though in the case of the movie version of Mamma Mia! Is anyone going to that really for the STORY? I don’t think so, though in Mamma Mia! the movie the story becomes more noticeable since the performers are actors first and singers definitely second — among that high-power cast only Christine Baranski and Meryl Streep would qualify as musically as well as dramatically talented but that’s par for movie musicals these days… for the most part they hire name actors first, and the ability to sing and dance is negligible.

Taking the kids to see something like Mamma Mia! or Jersey Boys is a way to enjoy that trip down memory lane while perhaps exposing the kids to stuff you loved once upon a time and getting them to like it too. That certainly is not what the musicals of the 1920s and 30s were about.

Sun, Aug 03, 2008 3:12pm

I’ve said it before, but it obviously needs saying again: Please resist the urge to write a dissertation in comments.

Proper Dave
Sun, Aug 31, 2008 4:24pm

What Grant said. I walked out after half an hour – it’s no fun watching great songs being repeatedly murdered.

Sat, Dec 13, 2008 5:15am

I am tickled to see such passionate fury arise out of frivolous and minute differences in opinion.

Alas, I shall not opine too much of the philosophical, but I must say, I felt that it was sort of a waste of my money catching it. Granted, the only saving grace of the movie was the hype of it all- but personally, I don’t think that there was really anything special about this movie.

Dissecting the whole feel-good atmosphere, I guess it can all boil down to the vibrance of the songs chosen and the decent portrayal of the roles by the actors and actresses. Sadly, that’s about all. The singing, no, croaking by Brosnan made me want to tear the hair of the person in front of me out.

Or maybe go cry over how such a horrible singer my first and only Bond crush is.


Laurie D. T. Mann
Wed, Dec 24, 2008 5:08pm

I had mixed feelings about the movie (I’ve never seen the show), so I didn’t see it over the summer. I watched it on Pay-per-View today, and it’s approaches being a good “turn your brain off and enjoy” flick. Certainly after weeks in the late fall Pittsburgh gloom, an hour and 45 minutes of sun and sea were a welcome change!

All the older female singers were much, much better than all the male singers. Streep studied opera and sang in a bunch of other movies (but not musicals – she sings a great country-western song at the end of Postcards from the Edge, for example). Baranski has song on Broadway. Walters had the weakest voice of the 3, but at least didn’t embarrass herself.

Sophie, by the way, may be best remembered as the unfortunate Lily Kane on Veronica Mars, and she had a certain charisma.

I’m in general agreement on the awfulness of the male singers, but Pierce Broson did an acceptable ballad late in the movie.

I’m also in general agreement with the idea that while ABBA had about 10 great songs, their lesser songs aren’t so hot.

Still, a fun and improbable flick.