Musical theater is alive and well—it just suffers from a lack of creativity. Why nowadays, Broadway is adapting movies into musicals, and even more strangely, using the repertoires of pop artists to tell stories. In the last decade, we've seen musicals based on the music of Billy Joel, The Four Seasons, and Queen, to name a few. These all followed the 1999 phenomenon that started it all, Mamma Mia!, inspired by the songs of ABBA.
Actually, the Swedish pop group is no stranger to musical theater. Immediately after ABBA broke up, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (the B's in ABBA and the group's principal songwriters) collaborated with award-winning lyricist Tim Rice to create Chess. The musical did fairly well in the UK but bombed in America. Despite some terrific pop songs (including the 1984 single "One Night in Bangkok"), the story about romance and intrigue amid an international chess tournament was too flimsy.
The same could be said about Mamma Mia! However, despite the threadbare story, it succeeded where Chess failed and became an international hit. Maybe there's something more relatable about a comedy of errors set at a big fat Greek (styled) wedding. Or maybe it's the hefty collection of catchy pop songs that have delighted for 30 years, long past the death of disco. Whatever the reason, director Phyllida Lloyd, writer Catherine Johnson, and producer Judy Craymer found success with a story incorporating beloved favorites like "Dancing Queen" and "Take a Chance on Me."
Naturally, that has led to the inevitable screen adaptation, starring none other than Meryl Streep in the role of Donna, a middle-aged hotel manager at an aging resort on a small Greek island. Her 20-year-old daughter Sophie (Mean Girls' Amanda Seyfried) is about to marry hunky boyfriend Sky (Dominic Cooper). But who will walk Sophie down the aisle on her big day? That's the million-dollar-question, since single mom Donna never revealed the identity of the father from her wild days in the '70s.
Determined to learn the truth, Sophie hatches a plan. She swipes her mother's old diary and narrows her father's identity to three probable suspects: architect Sam (Pierce Brosnan), businessman Harry (Colin Firth), or world traveler Bill (Stellan Skarsgård). Posing as her mother via letter, she invites the three to the wedding, hoping that she will instantly recognize her father on sight. Of course, this being a musical comedy and all, identities are mistaken, conversations are misinterpreted, and somehow, we still conclude with a joyous wedding, even if the events doesn't necessarily play out as expected.
This is actually the sort of fluff that works fairly well in a musical setting—just ask Mozart—and the classics from ABBA remain irresistible pop. The lyrics don't always convey the story well, but still generally give the idea. Plus, the setting is absolutely gorgeous, the cast is generally charming, and there are some funny moments.
Yet Mamma Mia! leaves me sending out an S.O.S., with much of the blame falling to the filmmakers—including the very same women responsible for the stage show. Co-producers Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson enlisted Lloyd for her film directing debut. Along with Johnson and Craymer, Lloyd chose unwisely to take the musical to the next level by building on its camp value, overloading it with silliness, sumptuous visuals, and female fantasies (including much ogling and groping of the male actors throughout).
The result is something more akin to a music video than a musical, and a rather sloppy one at that. On stage, the actors command your attention, placing the focus on their performance and the material. On screen, it's like watching a bloopers reel of the actors hamming it up on vacation, sometimes singing their lines, and sometimes goofing off along to the music. I've no doubt that everyone had fun making this movie, but that doesn't necessarily mean the audience will too.
The sloppiness extends to the staging of the musical numbers. It's one thing to have characters suddenly bursting into song and dance, and another to have them magically appear just to support the soloist. The best movie musicals make clever use of the surroundings to give the actors something to do during their performance or to advance the story. Here, it's as if the creators thought it would just be more fun to add water to the singing, for no other reason than visual titillation. You know you're in for it when Sky's bachelor party arrives by rising out of the ocean in tight swim trunks and flippers, singing and dancing to "Lay All Your Love on Me."
Casting is another flaw. Note to filmmakers: Ideally, it's good to cast actors who can sing in a musical. Both Seyfried and Christine Baranski (as Donna's sexy friend Tanya) show enough experience to land them regular Broadway gigs, but Streep is more hit-and-miss, which is problematic since she's the leading lady. Her voice ranges from karaoke to trained singer—sometimes singing smoothly, sometimes screechy. I'm honestly torn between calling her climactic performance of "The Winner Takes It All" the film's emotional highpoint and a glaring example of over-emoting.
At least Steep's vocal performance is passable, which is more than I can say for the embarrassing singing from the men. Firth comes off the best with his brief-but-pleasant contributions, and Skarsgård is also wisely limited to a few lines. But Brosnan delivers his two solos with the precision of a foghorn. (If they wanted a Bond who could sing, they should have tapped Sean Connery or Timothy Dalton.)
And then there are the mixed messages. Much like Grease, this musical seems well intentioned and wholesome at face value. But in the end, we're left with a story that uplifts premarital sex while trying to have it both ways by also endorsing marriage and the role of a father in parenting. In one sense, the movie seems to be saying that marriage is honorable and it's important to grow up with a father. A heartbeat later, it suggests that living together is just as good, and fathers aren't necessary.
Mamma Mia! has already proven itself a successful stage musical, and could have worked on screen if it were played with a similar tone. Or consider last year's adaptation of the musical Hairspray, which was campy and kitschy in many ways, yet also genuinely sweet, poignant, and clever in its execution on the big screen. This film, however, amounts to little more than middle-aged actors behaving silly on camera—whether falling into water, wearing bad wigs, or giggling like 10-year-old schoolgirls. It's a frustrating movie musical that sacrifices music and story for the sake of eye candy.
>Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- Sky tells Sophie, "You don't need a father, you have a family." Does Sophie need a father figure? Do you believe this movie promotes the need for a paternal presence, or is it saying that fathers are unnecessary? If possible, provide examples of both and decide which conclusion the story supports.
- Donna tells her friends that she's given up her wild ways and grown up. Are there ways in which she still needs to grow up, or is she simply a free spirit? In what ways does she mature within the scope of this film?
- How might all the paternal confusion in this story have been avoided in the first place? Does Mamma Mia! promote premarital sex? If so, why do you think the story justifies that in light of the consequences shown? Or do you feel it simply dismisses the consequences?
- In what ways does Mamma Mia! honor the institution of marriage? In what ways does it dishonor it? How does the Christian understanding of marriage compare and contrast with what is demonstrated in this film?
- In your opinion, which of the three potential fathers responds most honorably?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Mamma Mia! is rated PG-13 for "some sex-related comments." By "some" they mean a lot of sexual innuendo, much of it in reference to Donna's wilder younger days. For example, characters ask each other if they're "getting any" or suggest a guy could floss his teeth with a pair of women's briefs. No characters have sex within the movie or the story, but the musical numbers are somewhat risqué with guys dancing around in skimpy swim trunks and women groping some guys at a bachelorette party. Additionally, a man is briefly seen naked from behind. There's also an implied homosexual relationship, but no kissing or sex involved. The film generally refrains from profanity, though several characters exclaim, "Oh my God!"
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