Mamma Mia!

Mamma Mia! Relativity Media 2008

Before watching the movie:

This month I will be focusing on jukebox musicals, and for me in my experience, there’s no more obvious jukebox musical film than Mamma Mia!, having spent 20 years of my life being very aware of the music of ABBA being in the world.

I think the plot they’ve woven around these songs has to do with a woman about to get married and wanting to include the father she’s never met, only to find out her mother isn’t sure who that is because she was seeing three men at the same time. There are some details I’m more certain of than others, but finding fathers is definitely involved. I think the “sequel” is a flashback to that time frame entirely.

The music has already stood the test of time, but the story has to live up to one episode of Community that spent all its budget on the gag that the Halloween party playlist was just ABBA’s entire catalog.

After watching the movie:

Sophie Sheridan grew up in her mother Donna’s rundown hotel on a small Greek island with the story that she was conceived in a summer fling with a man who came to the island one year and left without contact info before Donna had realized she was pregnant. At age 20, Sophie is preparing for her wedding, and has found Donna’s journal from that summer, with the revelation that she had been with three men that summer and was never certain who was the father. Sam Carmichael spent weeks with her and then broke her heart by telling her he had to go home and marry his fiancee. Not long after, she met the exciting Bill Anderson, and very quickly after that, the sweet “Head-Bang Harry” Bright. Eager to meet her father and so learn about her own identity, Sophie sent letters to each of them posing as her mother with details from the journal and inviting them each individually to come reconnect and attend Sophie’s wedding. Keeping this secret from her Donna as a “great surprise”, Sophie is certain that she’ll know her father on sight. When the three show up the day before the wedding, Sam now an architect, Bill now a travel writer, and Harry now a shy banker, the reality hits that she really has no clue, and also Donna can’t see any of them before the wedding, and tries to hide them in Donna’s old goathouse. So of course Donna finds them, throws them out, and goes into a tailspin having this sudden reminder of her secret shame thrown at her on top of keeping the old hotel standing and planning Sophie’s wedding. Fortunately, Donna’s irreverant and lusty old bandmates Tanya and Rosie are on the island for the wedding for moral support. Sophie spends a day on Bill’s yacht with the three men getting to know them, and each of them finds a fatherly connection to her, leading to each of them having promised by the end of the night to walk her down the aisle tomorrow.

This is a story that keeps running on people refusing to talk to each other, but it seems fairly well justified in some cases. Sophie is very very young and in over her head. Donna is ashamed of what happened that summer and never told anyone, Sophie is the last person she wants to find out about it. The three potential fathers take a while to realize that they were summoned as fathers, and then each assume they’re the only possibility. Sky, Sophie’s fiancé, is a slightly more complicated case. He’s mostly out of the picture, but Sophie says she didn’t tell him she was writing to her maybe-daddies because he would’ve insisted that she tell Donna about it, and then when he does find out, he’s upset because he jumps to the conclusion that the whole idea of having a big wedding, or even getting married at all, was all about finding her father. I’m not sure that logic makes sense, but he’s a young man stressed from making a ceremony he never planned on happen, and maybe a little put off by the idea that some man his fiancée never met has more to do with who Sophie is than the man she already chose to spend her life with.

I kind of respect the decision to cast aspirational romantic leads over good singers. Maybe it would have been less distracting if they had been dubbed, but the authenticity of the lyrics not seeming to fit in some people’s mouths or accents leads to the overall tone of everyone just having fun with it. This show is more about everyone having a good time with time-tested ABBA music than about demonstrating any artistic achievement or saying something significant, and it excels at sharing a good time with the audience. The main disappointment is that the story is set on a Greek island, but it’s not at all interested in the Greek people who live there, only foreigners, mostly tourists, so it could have been any small, somewhat isolated place. The locals are only there as backup singers for big crowd numbers, forming a literal Greek chorus. But they’re having fun too.

The resolution gave me a bit of whiplash, because even by the standards of other stories that have the moment where they say “okay, it’s time for everybody to stop keeping secrets and actually talk to each other”, the pieces fell into place incredibly quickly. That said, the pieces fell into places I’d been hoping they would fall even though I wasn’t entirely sure (the casting would lead one to suspect a particular answer to the central question, but a much more satisfying decision was made), and still left room for some surprises that mostly made sense.

This is probably one of the best good-time singalong movies out there, and while it borrows a lot of that from bending itself to fit existing songs that were already popular, that just makes it more fun. This is a movie that is firstly for enjoying the familiar music and secondly for letting a slightly wacky plot go to places you probably expected to go. It doesn’t aspire to more, and it’s the best at being what it wants to be.


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