There are two things which are required to make a musical great. The first, perhaps obviously, is that the songs should be good. The second, and this is less obvious, is that the plot should be memorable in it’s own right. In other words, you should get the story down first before you start writing the songs. Write the film without any songs in it, stand back, and decide if you think it could get made. Then write the songs and put them in-between to make a delicious cinema cake filled with goodness that everyone will love. It’s a simple thing to check out, and films like West Side Story, The Sound Of Music, Fame, they all makes sure that their songs come complete with a story to make them meaningful.
Mamma Mia is about a young girl (played by Amanda Seyfried, who looks disconcertingly like a mermaid) who is preparing for her own wedding on a deserted island somewhere in America. It’s not made clear whereabouts this island is at any point during the film, but she has an American accent so presumably she lives somewhere nearby the ol’ USA. She’s not happy to get married until she finds out who her real father is, because it turns out her ma Donna (Meryl Streep) had her way with three different men in the month she got pregnant, and none of them know about it. So the girl decides that the best way to solve her paternity problem is to send a message to each of the three, inviting them to the wedding, firm in the belief that she’ll be able to work out which one is her father. At the same time, she doesn’t want any of them to see her mother; her mother to see any of them; any of them to work out why she invited them; and she expects them all to turn up on the spur of the moment.
Streep, to her credit, makes her character’s shady past seem entirely likely. Her character is an ex-hippie chick, and the fact she isn’t allowed to play this role during the film is criminal. Instead, the film asks her to play a put-upon mother who is either overbearing or not bearing enough – we’re never told which one we’re expected to think of her as. You get flashes of character, but there’s not much for her to play with. Streep’s not the sort of person you think of for light, frothy roles and this is immediately apparent the first time you see her, as she walks in aimlessly and then wanders off again with nary a hint of fanfare. This grows typical of the movie in general, as she trades off her usual magnetic presence for a lighter touch. This lack of grit or real feeling becomes sorely missed as the movie continues.
Without Streep scene-stealing like she does in The Devil Wears Prada, the film is forced to look elsewhere for the lead role, and we focus on the arrival of the three possible fathers, played by Stellan Skarsgard, Colin Firth, and Pierce Brosnan respectively. The plot of the film requires that each of the three men are equally likely to be the father of Sophie, but we quickly realise that Brosnan is far and away the most important of the three. He is the one whom Meryl looks at most, and thus the only one of the three to get any serious character exposition. Firth is mostly played for laughs, while Skarsgard is miscast and misused in his role, sat in the background almost the entire film as if he wishes he were somewhere else.
As more guests arrive for the wedding, we meet Donna’s old friends Julie Walters and Christine Baranski, who cackle away like they’re having a ball throughout. These two characters are here to bring some sparkle back to Donna’s life, although she’s either happy where she is or desperately unhappy where she is. The film, again, neglects to tell us where to fall with our feelings for Donna. Meanwhile Sophie bumps into the three fathers accidentally, all at once, and panics, sending them to a remote goathouse because she figures it the best place to hide them from her mother., who promptly walks straight into there and meets them. Given this chance to thus kick the plot into gear, the writers then stop doing anything and the film stalls for roughly an hour and a half before any of this is picked up again properly. The characters mope and worry about what will happen when their secret plans are found out, but each time they do, there is no reaction. Nobody gets angry in this movie.
Granted, the idea of a film like this is to provide sparkle and fun, and use the plot as a springboard to muck around. You don’t come to a film based around Abba to see something dramatic, after all. The problem is that As a result, the film attempts to ratchet up tension when there’s nothing going on, and the need for songs slowly gets more and more desperate as a way of filling up time. None of the characters get any development at all during the middle of the film, with songs being used as a way to plug in the gaps instead. We are given the entrance of all the characters, and a setup for what could’ve been a fun film with a strong resemblance to Shakespearian comedies like Much Ado About Nothing (which would’ve been a superb title for this film), and then left while the cast enjoy some karaoke.
A big deal is made of the contrivance that Sophie inadvertently makes each of the three men believe that they are her father, and thus must walk her down the aisle. It provides roughly twenty minutes of underdeveloped drama and songs. When the time comes, though, only Brosnan makes any appearance before the wedding scene, while Firth and Skarsgard are already sat down in the church, apparently oblivious to the promise they made Sophie the night before. The film thrives on such dangling plot developments. A lot is made of the irritation that Sophie’s fiancé feels because of her search for a father, but at the conclusion he just stands there at the church, smiling, because he’s not an important character. It’s another potential story that gets thrown to one side in order to have some songs.
But hey, at least the songs are by some of the strongest songwriters of all time. Benny and Bjorn put together some undeniably powerful songs about a variety of subjects, and some of these fit in perfectly with the type of story the makers are trying to tell – “Slipping Through My Fingers” appears towards the end, as Donna laments her daughter’s leaving home (even though we’ve already been told she isn’t moving anywhere), is well staged and works well. Likewise, when Donna finds the three men she belts out “Mamma Mia”, and it fits like a glove to the situation, and several other songs slip into proceedings effortlessly, with the last hurrah being “Take A Chance On Me”, the introduction of which is one of the first successful stabs of humour that the film achieves.
The strange trend though, is to have the character sing the first verse/chorus on their own, before boosting them with a backing track that renders them inaudible. This could be for a number of reasons, but the most likely one is that Lloyd realised she had a musical filled with actors who can’t sing, and she wanted to distract us from this. Brosnan suffers the most, as he’s given several big numbers to stumble through, including a moody version of “SOS” complete with creepy extras who shout at him as he tries to fix a light-bulb. He sings that one with Streep, during a part of the film which makes no sense to anyone watching for the first time. Mamma Mia is, perhaps, a film which works best on the second viewing. For her part, Streep is a game player, adding froth to an already overflowing film but doing so in a way which tries desperately to add to the film rather than detract. She’s the only performer who you look forward to hearing, here.
Indeed, aside from Streep, Seyfried’s over-cute numbers (the nauseating highlight of the movie is her ‘duet’ with the previously mentioned fiancé of hers, with whom she has no chemistry) and Brosnan’s Irish crackle – a new idea for a breakfast cereal if ever I heard one – you don’t get anyone else performing proper songs. Oh sure, Baranski gets a song in, but her character and side-plot (which comes from nowhere, incidentally) seem to be in the film purely so they can shoe-horn in “Does Your Mother Know”. The two other dads are forced to share their only song “Our Last Summer” with Brosnan, before being forgotten entirely. These songs come in extremely close to one another, with barely time for the actors to breathe before another dancehall number comes in again. There aren’t even any proper dance routines, because the film is set upon making the audience believe that this is all really happening. There are no flash-fantasy sequences or breaks of the fourth wall like in Rocky Horror or Grease, which makes everything very creepy indeed.
Only two songs have any fabulousness in them at all, a crime where Abba is concerned, and those two happen to be the credits sequence version of “Waterloo”, played for laughs, and the somewhat poignant rendition of “Super Trouper”. In these scene, one of only three to have any emotional resonance, we see the old guard of Streep, Baranski and Walters as they reunite their old band for the benefit of Sophie’s hen night. It’s a nice scene, carried off well by the three women as they share a mix of nostalgia, humour, and happiness with their crowd and the outside audience. The song accepts the campness of the situation, unlike the other songs which are aimlessly slotted in around realist moments. As far as the writers are concerned, the plot has either been ignored in favour of more karaoke songs, or pushed aside with no space left because of all the songs. In any case, we get all our conclusions at once, in the final scene.
All three dads, Donna, and Sophie gather at a church as she prepares to marry her fiancé. Midway through, Donna interrupts to finally confess that one of the men is Sophie’s dad, but Sophie admits she knew this because she invited them, and the men all trade shifty glances at each other, before everyone smiles and says “ok then”. It’s then revealed that Colin Firth has now turned gay and Pierce Brosnan is in love with Meryl Streep still (why didn’t they telegraph either of those two?), and Meryl and Pierce get married because Sophie calls off her wedding. Each development is thrown out there with no regard for reality at all, and when Julie Walters seduces Stellan Skasgard with a terrifying song and dance at the reception it speaks more of a desire for the film-makers to have a happy ending than anything else. It makes no sense, because it’s not developed. He should’ve been called Fernando, so then she could’ve sung to him that song earlier in the film, and that pairing would make more sense.
You get the sense that Mamma Mia is more a chance to watch Celebrity Karaoke than a real film, because we have a beginning and an end, but no connection between them and a lot of useless padding in the middle. There’s a gaping hole in the film where an actor should have marched in and taken over the show – like Catherine Zeta Jones in Chicago, for example – but instead we get a limp film which is barely lifted by the middling execution of all the songs. For what the film offers, they might as well have just given us longer songs, less bothersome dialogue between Sophie and whoever she’s shrieking at whenever, and more pizzazz and sparkle. More camp factor! Surely that’s what Abba were all about, anyway?