It’s been a funny couple of years for the Hollywood musical. Moulin Rouge! was the film that made the change, in that it made mainstream pop music usable in musicals, as well as making it acceptable for famous actors who don’t have strong singing voices to give it a try without being dubbed over. Both of these things are debatably good.
But for all its silliness Moulin Rouge! took itself far too seriously. As did Across the Universe, Dreamgirls and the abominable Chicago. Hairspray did also, perhaps, but had the talent and style behind it to make it work. Mamma Mia! on the other hand is something entirely different.
No film has revelled in its own preposterousness as much as Mamma Mia! since Crank. It is absurd, it is silly and it is camp as can be, but it is entertaining as hell from start to finish.
The setting is a Greek island. A young woman, raised by her single parent workaholic mother, is getting married, somewhat in defiance of her strong-willed mother, and invites the three men from her mother’s past who could be her father to the wedding. When they get there, situation comedy breaks out, with music and lyrics by Abba.
Meryl Streep is on typical likable diva form as Donna, now a struggling entrepreneur, formerly of a suspiciously Abba-esque pop band: Donna and the Dynamos. Her two former back up singers, played by the odd but amusing pairing of Julie Walters and Christine Baranski, bring the fun and plenty of sexual innuendo. Walters has the time of her life with the role of Rosie, while Baranski’s Tanya is the best she’s been onscreen since Cybill ended, playing admittedly a similar role to her Maryanne.
Meanwhile the three men, played with excessive energy by Colin Firth (formerly rebellious, now prim and prissy), Stellan Skarsgård (formerly mysterious, still mysterious) and Pierce Brosnan (formerly dreamy, now perfect) steal the whole show.
Amanda Seyfried, who played the borderline brain-dead Karen in Meangirls, radiates here (perhaps easy in the gorgeous Grecian sunlight) as bride-to-be Sophie, an unrecognisably different character. She is sweet and lovable as one would expect from the female lead of a romantic musical (take note, Nicole Kidman). Her fiancé, named Sky (a name, apparently), is played by Dominic Cooper, most memorable from The History Boys and here little more than handsome young padding.
The eye-catching Greek backdrop is all very pleasant, but what about the music. Well, Abba really are pop personified. A pure shot of liquid pop would no doubt cause spontaneous outbursts of ‘Dancing Queen’. While I could imagine someone preferring countless bands to Abba, to genuinely dislike Abba would require a Scroogean heart of stone. Since the lyrics are more or less unchanged from their original forms, they only barely make sense half the time, but that is some of the fun, catching when a song is likely to be played.
Some don’t quite work. The first full number, ‘Honey, Honey’, falls a tad flat, as Sophie and her generic girlie friends discuss her mother’s sex life. Apparently ellipses are synonymous with intercourse. I’m not sure what I’m implying by this sentence then…
‘Lay All Your Love On Me’ is a touch too Madonna video, as Sky and Sophie roll in the sand before a macho brigade of lads perform a flamboyant dance on a jetty – easily the film’s most heterosexually alienating sequence.
Streep’s power ballad delivery of ‘The Winner Takes It All’ is simply too much, and pales in comparison to her blind duet with Brosnan of ‘S.O.S.’, where the two sing to one another without the other hearing them singing as well – providing a smart irony to the lyrics “So when you’re near me darling can’t you hear me?”
‘Money, Money, Money’ just about works, but a puerile fantasy sequence in the middle of it nearly kills it. It’s up to songs like ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘Take a Chance On Me’ to really up the ante, which admittedly they do. Tanya’s version of ‘Does Your Mother Know’, to a much younger suitor, includes one of the cleverest fellatio jokes you’re likely to see this year.
The camp cannot be contained, and this film is rolling in it. Brosnan relishes the chance to ham it up in a non-Bond-like role, Firth gets the film’s best and gayest line, while Skarsgård, who would normally be more at a home in a hard-hitting drama about a woman whose addiction to Abba music was slowly killing her and estranging her from her family, slips into this silly role perfectly.
If musicals aren’t your thing then of course this will not be for you, but this much unbridled fun rarely makes its way into cinema screens. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson have once again struck gold producing a camptastic stage show for the big screen. Even if it is more flamboyant than an Orlando gay pride festival, Mamma Mia! is the most harmless film that is utterly self-aware of its ridiculousness that you will see for some time. The (unmissable) performances over the end credits really do say it all – this looks like it was even more fun to make than it is to watch.