Mamma Mia! Old-Fashioned Musical of Abba Songs, Starring Meryl Streep

Old-fashioned and schmaltzy, but enjoyable, “Mamma Mia!” the screen version of the stage musical, hits you over the head with its insistently good cheer and aggressive feel good approach, almost forcing you to enjoy the familiar Abba tunes, which accompany the wooden film.

Seen by more than 30 million people in 170 cities and 8 different languages, the stage and screen musical is a middlebrow fare that doesn’t take full advantage of the music of the iconic band Abba, whose songs have decorated better pictures (“Muriel’s Wedding,” “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” and even “Together”)

Despite a multi-generational plot and a young central couple, this is a largely chick flick for mature and older viewers, not least because the leads are all actors of a certain age, including Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan. Joining this duo are vet character actors, such as Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgaard, Julie Walters, and Chritsine Baranski, still better known for her stage work.

Hailing from the theater and opera worlds, helmer Phyllida Lloyd has decided to take the easy way out, approaching the highly popular music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjrn Ulvaeus as a celebration of joy and love, a fodder for a passable narrative about a seemingly generation gap between mothers and daughters and the men in their lives.

It’s not surprising that the film is produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman’s company, which is also responsible for “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” a movie with which “Mamma Mia!” shares some similarities in theme, approach, and sensibility, both being broad, predictable romantic comedies that pander to the audience, eager to offer simplistic entertainment.

The whole enterprise has a rather shallow touristy flavorsort of girls just want to have funin part a result of being shot on a magical Greek Island. “Mamma Mia!” embraces the clich or myth that in exotic locales, far away from the restrictions and inhibitions of home country, everything and anything can happen, particularly when love is concerned. Indeed, the romantic possibilities are infinite–and love is really in the air, to quote from another popular tune.

Though understandable that they would want to do the film, it might have been a mistake to ask the women who created the stage hit, producer Judy Cramer, screenwriter Catherine Johnson, and director Phyllida Lloyd, to reprise their roles in bringing this joyful story to the screen, because they lack the basic narrative and technical skills of what makes a musical tick and excite on the big screen.

Embracing the stage musical mantra, “Let the joy wash over you,” the movie goes out of its way to do so, but insistence without matching skills can draw on the viewers’ good faith only up to a point. That point will greatly differ from viewer to viewer, depending on their threshold of tolerance. In my case, midway, I deliberately relinquished my critical scrutiny and tried to disregard the banal dialogue and conventional situations, and instead concentrate on the music in a wave of nostalgia, recalling the show I saw in London over a decade ago.

The plot is expectedly slender: A young daughter is determined to find out who was her birth father on her wedding day, and to that extent invites the three men her mother had slept with. Fortunately, the landscape is more promising and colorful: The story is set in 1999 on the enchanting Greek island of Kalokairi.

The twenty or so songs are evenly spread throughout the yarn, which is good, but most of them, whether indoors or outdoors are staged (and performed) in a pedestrian, obvious way; you can almost predict when and where a character will burst into song-and-dance.

The romantic adventure begins at the remote hotel Villa Donna, run by Donna (Meryl Streep), her daughter Sophie (the gifted Amanda Seyfried of “Mean Girls” fame), and Sophie’s fianc Sky (Dominic Cooper, who recently made an impression in “The History Boys”). Just in time for her upcoming marriage, Sophie nervously posts three wedding invitations (“I Have a Dream”) to three men, each of whom may be her father. From three cities, the men set off to return to the island and the woman that had enchanted them 20 years earlier.

Rousing her staff for the frenetic day ahead, Donna shares with her mates a “scandalous secret”: Sophie has found her mother’s diary and learned she might have three possible dads: businessman Sam Carmichael (Pierce Brosnan), adventurer Bill Anderson (Stellan Skarsgrd), and banker Harry Bright (Colin Firth). It goes without saying that they represent different types of manhood, courtship, and lifestyle.

Without telling her mom, Sophie has invited the trio of strangers to her wedding (“Honey, Honey”), hoping that spending time with each will let her know who her real father is. Fortuitously, Sam and Harry miss the ferry to Kalokairi, and Bill offers them a lift on his yacht to reconnect with the woman who broke their hearts.

Donna is ecstatic to reunite with old friends and former “Donna and The Dynamos” band mates, the wisecracker Rosie (Julie Walters) and wealthy multiple divorce Tanya (Christine Baranski), expressing her mystification at her daughter’s desire for a traditional wedding.

The only concession to modernity in this contrived banality is a scene at the Villa, when Sophie introduces Tanya and Rosie to Sky and tells them about her idea of designing a Website to attract tourists to the island. Bursting into the song, “Money, Money, Money,” Donna explains her precarious finances to her girlfriends, while taking them on a tour of the Villa, but the director doesn’t use the exteriors in an interesting way, and we get a picture postcard view and not much energy in the dancing either.

Hounded by her creditors, Donna dreams of a rich man’s world, sunbathing on a yacht and being pampered, only to be brought back to reality when a crack appears in the courtyard. Meanwhile, upon arrival, Sophie smuggles the men to their quarters, sheepishly explaining she is the one who sent the invitations. She begs the men to hide in order so that Donna will be surprised seeing her old friends. Overhearing Donna work in the storeroom below fixing the crack, the men of honor swear to keep her secret.

Another stage contrivance kicks in, when Donna peeps through the trapdoor and is dumbfounded to find herself face-to-face with the three former lovers she had never forgotten (“Mamma Mia”), while the men make up clumsy excuses for their presence. Adamant and stubborn, Donna determines that they simply cannot stay. Shaken, she confides in Tanya and Rosie (“Chiquitita”) her secret, that she is uncertain which of the trio is actually Sophie’s father.

Inspired by the ABBA’s theatricality, Lloyd and her team have created a saccharine heartwarming and uplifting musical about love, young and mature one, that service their tunes in a tiresome, conventional format but seldom soars the way that great musicals do. Under her static helm, there is distinction between the ABBA’s songs that are playful and innocent, such as “Honey, Honey” and “Dancing Queen,” and the more reflective and emotional ones, such as “The Winner Takes It All” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You.”

There are some nice moments, such as Meryl Streep’s emotional rendition of “The Winner Takes It All,” originally titled “The Story of My Life,” ABBA’s greatest break-up song (and the band’s last top-10 hit in the U.S.).

It’s hard to tell who could have come with a more vigorous and inventive format, perhaps Baz Luhrmann, who had staged for screen two great musicals “Strictly Ballroom” (which originated as a stage show) and “Moulin Rouge,” which led to a Broadway production. “Mamma Mia! might have been a better movie as an ABBA tribute musical, or even as the band’s story.

End Note

The first show opened on April 6, 1999 at the Prince Edward Theatre in London, deemed a good omen as Abba had won the Eurovision Song Contest on the same date in 1976. “Mamma Mia”! opened in the U.S. in November 2000 at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. In October 2001, the musical debuted on Broadway, bringing in $27 million in advance ticket sales, one of the highest in theater history, and receiving (but not winning) five Tony Award nominations. In February 2003, the show opened at the Mandalay Bay Theatre in Las Vegas, where it played its 1000th show in June 2005, thus becoming one of the longest-running Broadway plays in town.

“Mamma Mia!” has become a global phenomenon. There have been 20 productions and currently nine are generating more than $8 million a week in ticket sales. More than 30 million people have seen the show worldwide. More than 17,000 people see the show around the world every night, “Mamma Mia!” has already grossed more than $2 billion at the box office. The show has premiered in more cities worldwide and faster than any other musical in history: It has opened in more than 170 major cities since the first production in London a decade ago.

Spoiler Alert

This section depicts specific plot points and the resolution, reflecting my structuralist approach to movies, which in the case of musicals is all about how the musical numbers are inserted and integrated (or not) in the narrative.

In the film’s third reel, Tanya and Rosie rally spirits by getting Donna to join in, with the female staff and islanders accompanying a musical number intended to make her forget her woes. Donna and The Dynamos reclaim their glory days, championing the women of the island in a call to liberation, which represents another missed opportunity to stage a buoyant number, “Dancing Queen,” one of Abba’s most famous tunes.

The men aboard Bill’s yacht they take a trip around the gorgeous island, while chanting “Our Last Summer,” and telling stories of Donna as a carefree, sexual woman. Sky and Sophie sing passionately to each other “Lay All Your Love on Me,” but they are interrupted by the bachelor party and the kidnapping of Sky during his last night of freedom.

Not to be neglected or undermined, at Sophie’s bachelorette party, the femmes celebrate in a surprise one-night-only event as Donna and The Dynamos sing “Super Trouper.” Sophie is delighted to see her mom rock out but her mood changes when the festivities are interrupted by the men’s arrival. A series of dull scenes follows as Sophie decides to get each of her three prospective dads alone for tte–tte.

The bride uses the confusion of her amorous girlfriends’ dancing with the men– “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! A Man After Midnight”–to speak with Sam about his love for Donna. Then she talks to Harry about his desire for children, and finally, she makes Bill confess that it was his Great Aunt Sofia who gave Donna the money for her villa. Assured that Bill must be her father, Sophie asks him to give her away. Her happiness is short-lived as Sam and Harry say they must be her dad and thus must give her away “Voulez-Vous.” Shocked and overwhelmed by the consequences of her action, Sophie faints on the dance floor. In the morning, Rosie and Tanya reassure a frantic Donna they will take care of the men. Donna confronts Sophie in the courtyard, mistakenly believing Sophie wants the wedding stopped. Sophie angrily says that all she wants is to avoid her mother’s mistakes and storms off. An upset Donna is accosted by Sam, full of fatherly concern at Sophie getting married so young. Donna dresses him down, and both realize they still have feelings for each other (“SOS”).

Just when Bill and Harry are about to confide in each other, Rosie interrupts them, startled to find Bill making breakfast in the buff, while Tanya and Pepper continue their May-December flirtations from the previous night (“Does Your Mother Know”).

With her wedding in jeopardy, Sophie decides it’s time to “come clean” to Sky and ask for his help. Predictably, he reacts angrily to the deception, and she must turn to her mother for support. Helping her daughter dress for their wedding, the rift is healed and Donna reminisces about Sophie’s childhood and how quickly she’s grown (“Slipping Through My Fingers”).

Sophie finally realizes what we have known from scene one, that the only parent she’s ever known is the one to give her away. As the staff and bridesmaids accompany mother and daughter to the chapel, Donna waves the wedding party on, and a nervous Sam begs Donna to talk, but she cuts him short with a revelation of the deep pain she had felt over losing him (“The Winner Takes It All”).

After the ceremony begins, Donna confesses to Sophie that her father is present–but he could be Sam, Bill or Harry. Does it matter The three men concur they would be happy to be “one-third” of a father. Then another surprise arrives, when Sophie tells Sky they should postpone their wedding and travel the world, as they have always wanted. Stepping in with the final curveball, Sam proposes to Donna and she accepts (“I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do”)!

At the wedding reception, Sam sings to Donna, “When All is Said and Done,” the only tune that was not in the original musical, which prompts Rosie to make a final coy play for Bill with “Take a Chance On Me.” All the couples proclaim their love, and in a kitschy way that would please Esther Williams in her MGM musicals, water from Aphrodite’s fountain bursts through the crack in the courtyard. The story concludes as Sophie and Sky bid farewell to the island, sailing away to a new life while singing “I Have a Dream.”