Saturday, July 26, 2008

Reel Thoughts: ABBA-cadabra!

If you don’t like ABBA, you have Australia to blame for their resurgent popularity. Would the Swedish pop group have had such a comeback without Toni Collette’s marriage-obsessed Muriel’s Wedding and the ABBA-riffic Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert? Why, even the Broadway posters for Mamma Mia! were a direct rip-off of Muriel's.

Of course, once it opened, Mamma Mia! became a worldwide sensation, easily one of the best “jukebox musicals” of all time. The reason it succeeds onstage, even in fickle Las Vegas where it has outlived about a half dozen other Broadway imports, is that the wafer-thin story is just framework enough to hang ABBA’s infectious hits. On the other hand, it doesn’t feel like a tired retread of what it’s celebrating, like All Shook Up did.

The film version is extremely exciting, mostly due to its all-star cast and spectacular Greek locations. Opened up and blown up on the big screen, some of what works on stage feels flat on film. The other problem is that now, you really get the chance to hear the lyrics, and it reminds you that English wasn’t really ABBA’s first language. No amount of song selling on Christine Baranski and Julie Walters’ parts will improve the inherent silliness of “Chiquitita”; and much as I adored Meryl Streep’s heartfelt rendition of “The Winner Takes It All”, after the fourth repetition of the same lyrics, you start to feel a little bad for her -- let the poor woman finish the song, already!

The story of Mamma Mia! takes place on a magically beautiful Greek Island where Donna (Streep) is running an inn and preparing for her daughter Sophie’s wedding. Sophie, played with charming sweetness by Amanda Seyfried, is determined to have her father give her away, despite never having met him or even knowing his name. Reading her Mom’s diary, she narrows it down to three men with whom Donna “dot, dot, dotted,” and Sophie invites them all to her wedding. Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd play the prospective papas, while Baranski and Walters play Donna’s best friends and former back-up singers (when they were “Donna and the Dynamos”).

The film is set to every ABBA song you’ve ever heard, and a few you haven’t. Donna and Sophie bond while confronting the past, and everyone finds love in one way or another. My favorite thing about the film and show is the way it focuses on the middle-aged women and their supportive friendship. The music may not always be equal to the quality of the people singing it (especially Streep), but everyone is clearly having a ball, and you will, too.

UPDATE: Mamma Mia! is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom

Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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