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Mamma Mia Movie-- Highly Recommended:
I have seen the musical Mamma Mia three times, twice in Boston and once on Broadway. So obviously I like the play. Why? Well for one thing I like the ABBA songs, and always have, despite the more refined taste of my 1970s peers who preferred the melodious sounds of Neil Young, Van Morrison, and Bob Dylan. (Commentators: take it away!)

Another thing I really liked about Mamma Mia was the cleverness with which playwright Catherine Johnson wove the songs and their (largely) unaltered lyrics into an entertaining story. Not a deep one, mind you, but a cute Broadway musical-type story that was a teeny bit clever to boot. In contrast, I recently saw Jersey Boys and loved it, not truly realizing before how many big hits the Four Seasons had. I also knew nothing about the history of the group, which now seems odd since we knew so much about the personal history of other groups from the 60s and, judging from the play, the Four Seasons seem to have a truly colorful history. (Hint: jail, the Mob, and Joe Peschi were involved.) Yet the songs in Jersey Boys only relate very tangentially to the plot, which is about development of the group itself. Mamma Mia was a traditional musical in which the songs advance the story.

When the Mamma Mia movie came out and was highly reviewed, I knew the songs themselves would provide a minimum level of enjoyment. Yet, I was not eager to see it. As everyone knows, movie versions of plays are typically overblown given the need to expand beyond the confines of a stage and fill the screen with images and action. And the on-screen performances often seem phony given that screen actors, rather than Broadway performers, are typically cast to satisfy box office demands. Translating a play into a film usually undermines what made the play work well enough to be made into a film in the first place. And I am not a big Meryl Streep fan. I recognize her enormous talent, of course, but rarely look forward to seeing her performances.

Yesterday I finally saw Mamma Mia the film and was shocked at how good it was. I don't want to give anything away so let me offer a few brief reasons why. First and foremost, Meryl Streep's performance as Donna Sheridan was really impressive. Her singing was surprisingly good, but her dancing and verve were amazing, especially given her age. As a bonus, her powerful acting ability injected a real meaning and emotion into the songs that never came through in the play. (Especially "The Winner Takes it All".) So too was Amanda Seyfried's performance as Sophie, Donna's daughter. Because the plot revolves around these two characters, the strength of their performances elevated the entire production.

Second, and related to the first, because of the acting abilities of Streep and Seyfried, combined with the closeups allowed by film, there was an emotional element that was lacking in the play, and aspects of the plot made more sense because of it. Third, the plot itself was tweaked in small ways (I won't mention) that enhanced the believability of the love story, and especially the largely contrived ending, which in the film seems less contrived. Finally, the cinematography and choreography were both outstanding. Perhaps it works so well because the gorgeous Greek island where it was shot provides a naturally confined "stage" on which the action transpires.

As with the play, the male characters are mere appendages to the females around whom the plot revolves. While Pierce Brosnan's acting ability helps sell the love story, unfortunately he cannot sing a note, while called upon to sing an extra ABBA song not in the play. The audience kept tittering whenever he tried. Ironically, Brosnan's gross inability to sing made the singing of the other film actors all the more impressive as, obviously, there remain limits on how a voice can be digitally enhanced in the studio.

[My one beef with the film as compared with the play is a small but needlessly offensive plot change involving the Harry Bright character's background. (Warning: tiny extraneous plot spoiler follows.) A middle-aged man, in the play he is revealed to gay with a stable long-term relationship back home. Played by Colin Firth (one of my favorite actors), in the movie he has just 2 dogs at home and an obvious attraction to a much younger island native, with whom it is intimated he hooked up at a drunken bachelor party. Had the play and film plots been reversed, I might have been annoyed at the political correctness of the film-makers, but to introduce a derogatory gay stereotype into a story where it previously did not exist is stupefying.]

So if you like musicals, and especially if you liked the play, you should see Mamma Mia the film.

[comments now activated]
Hmm...:
I disagree with you, wholeheartedly, mainly because I disagree with your premise (I can't stand the ABBA songs). I was dragged to the play - couldn't stand it - and thus don't think I'll see the movie. But, to each their own!

On another note, the title is Mamma Mia, not Mama Mia.
8.8.2008 4:05pm
ChrisIowa (mail):

As with the play, the male characters are mere appendages to the females around whom the plot revolves.


So it's like real life then?
8.8.2008 4:08pm
Arkady:

Well for one thing I like the ABBA songs, and always have, despite the more refined taste of my 1970s peers who preferred the melodious sounds of Neil Young, Van Morrison, and Bob Dylan.


You just liked the hotties in the band. A.O Scott at the New York Times had good things to say about the film (at least I think they were good things):


See that girl! Watch that scene! If you change your mind, I'm the first in line. Mamma Mia, here I go again. Like me, you may have spent the last 30 years struggling to get lines like those out of your head — and wondering what they were doing there in the first place — but you might as well have been trying to compost Styrofoam. Those shimmery, layered arrangements, those lyrics in a language uncannily like English, those symmetrical Nordic voices — they all add up to something alarmingly permanent, a marshmallow monument on the cultural landscape. When our species dies out, leaving the planet to roaches and robots, the insects will beat their little wings to the tune of "Waterloo" as Wall-E and Eve warble along.
8.8.2008 4:13pm
Dan Schmutter:
Wow, Randy, I could not disagree with you more. My wife and I saw the play in Toronto with the original Toronto cast before it came to Broadway. We enjoyed it immensely notwithstanding the fact that neither one of us is a particular fan of Abba.

However, we saw the film, and we thought it was just awful. None of them, with the exception of Christine Baranski, could sing a note. They were on key but they simply could not sing.

You are correct that Brosnan is atrocious which makes it all the more ironic that they gave him an EXTRA song to sing that was not in the play.

We found the performances mediocre, although I will agree that the location is great.

We were so diappointed that they chose to cast stars who tried to sing (badly) rather than singers who could act.

Even the Waterloo encore, which works so well live because everyone is up on their feet dancing in the aisles, falls flat on the screen. Its like they're singing in the middle of a black hole.

If you enjoyed the stage production you will (unless you are Randy) be disappointed with the film. If you haven't seen the stage production, skip the film and see the stage production.

Dan

P.S. This observation of Randy's, BTW, is exactly right.


Another thing I really liked about Mama Mia was the cleverness with which playwright Catherine Johnson wove the songs and their (largely) unaltered lyrics into an entertaining story



It's why I really enjoyed the play even though I don't particularly like Abba.
8.8.2008 4:15pm
Yay Musicals! (mail):
I'll wait till Dale Carpenter recommends the musical, thank you.
8.8.2008 4:24pm
gab:
I'm still trying to wrap my head around that first paragraph. Are you saying, Randy, that you preferred ABBA to Neil Young, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan?
8.8.2008 4:30pm
wuzzagrunt (mail):
A chick flick with a soundtrack by ABBA. It costs less to go to the movies than to have a root canal worked on, but the sound of the dental drill is less annoying. Decisions, decisions....
8.8.2008 4:44pm
Alan Gunn (mail):

"those lyrics in a language uncannily like English"


Yeah, I like ABBA songs, too, and I think it's partly because the lyrics are so odd. Sometimes there are far too many words in a line, so they just sing them fast, and if there are too few, they sing them slowly to make them fit. The result is lines that rhyme, but aren't anything like poetry. "Super Trouper," for instance, starts with something like "I was sick and tired of everything when I called you last night from Glasgow." Less poetic than that you can't get. It's a long, long, way from, say, "A bunch of the boys were whoopin' it up in the Malamute Saloon." You wouldn't think it possible to sing those words from "Super Trouper," but they manage.
8.8.2008 5:09pm
prison rodeo (mail):
Best review I've read to date is here

Best line:

"It will be months before I will have any testosterone back flowing through my body."
8.8.2008 5:10pm
Cornellian (mail):
I think guys should probably be required to see Mamma Mia to make up for all those times they dragged their wife/girlfriend to see something like The Fast and the Furious.
8.8.2008 5:53pm
r.friedman (mail):
LOCAL IDIOT TO BLOG ON VOLOKH
8.8.2008 6:00pm
Yankev (mail):

Mamma Mia was a traditional musical in which the songs advance the story.
Haven't seen the play or the movie yet, but I thought that Oklahoma's big departure from traditional musicals was just that -- using songs to advance the story, as opposed to earlier musicals where the story and songs were tangentially related.
8.8.2008 6:11pm
surrender_monkey:
Although it was not my own free choice to watch the movie (damn democracy when it comes to deciding on which movie to watch), I was pleasantly surprised. I had a few good laughs and I very much enjoyed Meryl Streep's performance. "The Winner Takes it All" almost made me cry...

The fact that Brosnan cannot sing is actually quite comforting to me. It would be just unfair if such a successful, rich and handsome man were a great singer, too. ;-)
8.8.2008 6:21pm
Morat20 (mail):

I think guys should probably be required to see Mamma Mia to make up for all those times they dragged their wife/girlfriend to see something like The Fast and the Furious.


Which is exactly the reasoning my wife gave.
8.8.2008 6:33pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):

I'm still trying to wrap my head around that first paragraph. Are you saying, Randy, that you preferred ABBA to Neil Young, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan?


I did a quick search. Neil Young had one number one single: Heart of Gold. Van Morrison topped out with Domino at number 9. Dylan also never had a number one single, though Like a Rolling Stone made it to number two.

Abba had three number ones: Fernando, Dancing Queen, and The Winner Takes It All. Are you saying that anything that the other losers did compares with Dancing Queen???
8.8.2008 6:53pm
wuzzagrunt (mail):
Cornellian:

I think guys should probably be required to see Mamma Mia to make up for all those times they dragged their wife/girlfriend to see something like The Fast and the Furious.

There are, I believe, international treaties and conventions prohibiting such disproportionate retaliation.
8.8.2008 7:04pm
BT:
Randy, I hate to say this but you are no longer a credit to Calumet City, IL. You are no longer my homeboy. I grew up listening, thanks to my brother who is ten years older than me, to James Brown, Solomon Burke, Curtis Mayfield, etc. That is the music of Calumet City not the wretched ABBA. From now on, we will call you Randy "Orland Park" Barnett.
8.8.2008 8:42pm
corneille1640 (mail):
I don't see why one can't like both ABBA and Neil Young.
8.8.2008 8:52pm
corneille1640 (mail):
I saw the movie a couple weeks ago and didn't catch the plot point about Colin Firth's character having a stable relationship. When was it mentioned?
8.8.2008 8:53pm
Cornellian (mail):
I think guys should probably be required to see Mamma Mia to make up for all those times they dragged their wife/girlfriend to see something like The Fast and the Furious.

There are, I believe, international treaties and conventions prohibiting such disproportionate retaliation.


Alas, such treaties, per Medellin, have not been enacted into the domestic law of the U.S., and thus cannot save you from being sentenced to a two-hour estrogen injection.
8.8.2008 9:15pm
Waldensian (mail):

So obviously I like the play. Why? Well for one thing I like the ABBA songs

Oooookay. Enough said, I guess.
8.8.2008 9:59pm
Ted S. (mail) (www):
Why on earth would I like Bob Dylan's toneless moaning? Neil Young is almost as bad. And don't get me started on the extremely overrated Bruce Springsteen. ABBA's music is good precisely because the melodies are simple and catchy, and sung clearly. I personally believe that the reason they're generally denigrated is because they didn't get in the pretentiousness of trying to attach any "socially conscious" "message" to their music.

It's kind of like Paul McCartney, who went around singing "Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs/And what's wrong with that?" Critics, in my experience, tend to treat McCartney unfairly for it, while praising John Lennon to the heavens for producing dreadful dirges like "Imagine" and the truly emetic "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)"

Seriously, get a copy of the original ABBA: The Movie, about the group's 1977 tour of Australia.
8.8.2008 11:32pm
neurodoc:
Q: Good or bad?
A: de gustibus non est disputandum (or if you are a Francophone, chacun a son gout).
8.9.2008 1:44pm