Were the members of ABBA pristine popsters or devil spawn? Since this frothy summer musical is built upon the catchy confections of the 1970s Swedish supergroup, the answer to this question is key to the enjoyment of Mamma Mia! ABBA haters, be forewarned: The songs of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus will haunt your dreams in ways you never thought possible.
That's because this movie version was made by the creative trio (director Phyllida Lloyd, writer Catherine Johnson and producer Judy Craymer) that spawned the wildly popular musical a decade ago in London, and they've perfected a formula for turning soaring pop songs with ESL lyrics and incessant hooks into poignant expressions of emotional turmoil.
What's lost in the translation from stage to screen (the audience sing-alongs that transformed live performances into ABBA lovefests) the movie gains in veracity and impact. This is escapist and sentimental fare, but by focusing on the intense mother-daughter bond and the devotion of female friendships in addition to romantic entanglements, Mamma Mia! packs an emotional wallop.
When single mother Donna (Meryl Streep) helps her 20-year-old daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) prepare for her wedding day, she sees her with a misty-eyed wonder and sings "Slipping Through my Fingers," taking the opportunity to cradle her grown-up child for probably the last time. Mamma Mia! may be an airy musical, but it's also a resolutely old-fashioned woman's movie, and the shabby-chic hillside hotel Villa Donna is run as a matriarchy.
Sophie's wedding means the arrival of her mother's former singing partners (the scene-stealing Julie Walters and Christine Baranski) to the Greek isle of Kalokairi, along with three men who shared a summer of love with the adventurous Donna. But which one is Sophie's father? Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård are charming as the befuddled, would-be papas, their impulsive holiday turning into a surprise life assessment.
Though Mamma Mia! has been performed onstage umpteen thousand times around the world, the movie isn't burdened with the rigidity and overproduction that stifles so many recent musicals. It has the loosey-goosey, infectious summer feeling of Grease (1978), with first-time filmmaker Lloyd creating a welcome air of spontaneity, even in the most carefully choreographed musical numbers.
With an actual Greek chorus and a cast that throw itself into the singing roles with palpable gusto, Mamma Mia! turns heartbreak into joy and makes second chances seem all that much sweeter.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].