Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Mamma Mia! (Universal, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Mamma Mia! began life on stage as a 1999 musical which debuted on London, the creation of director Phyllida Lloyd and writer Catherine Johnson, who got the idea of taking songs from the catalog of the 1970’s dance-pop band ABBA and writing a plot to fit them. ABBA has always been one of those bands I liked, but not enough to buy their records “in the day” — they always struck me as doing high-class ear candy but I have a lot of respect for them in that, unlike either their contemporaries in the disco field or the practitioners of so-called “dance music” today, they (at least the male members Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, who wrote all their songs) had the knack of constructing genuinely infectious melodies and rhythms that made you want to dance instead of making you feel like you were being ordered to. It’s still true; I found myself tapping my feet in time to the music through much of the film, even though the singers here were hardly on the level of the original ABBAns.

Lloyd and Johnson, who adapted their own stage work for the film, didn’t pretend to be doing anything but creating a bit of amiable fluff that would succeed or fail on the basis of the music and, at least in the film version, the spectacular Mediterranean locations they picked for most of the film — it takes place on a Greek island and most of it was shot on one, and though the interiors were shot in England at the Pinewood Studios in London, virtually all the film’s most important sequences take place out of doors and look absolutely glorious (thanks largely to the rich, glowing, almost 1940’s-Technicolorish cinematography of Haris Zambarloukos, who eschewed the uniform brown tones of all too many movies today, possibly in an attempt to make his home country look so beautiful this film will attract tourists — which it probably will).

The plot is a trifle about Donna Sheridan (Meryl Streep), a hippie-chick who in the 1960’s led a girl group called “Donna and the Dynamos” before retiring to a Greek island and setting up a resort. Somewhere during a two-week period she had sex with three different men, resulting in a daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), who’s about to marry a young Englishman (at least I gather he’s an Englishman because of his accent) named Sky (Dominic Cooper). As one imdb.com commentator noted, the time frame of this film is “off” because Donna describes herself as a flower child in one of the songs, but the film is set in the present — meaning that she would have had to conceive her daughter in the 1980’s, not the 1960’s.

In any case, Sophie has grown up with no idea of who her biological father is, until on the eve of the wedding she discovers a diary her mom kept during those days (it’s an orange book with flower stickers on it) and in it she learns that the three men her mom had sex with at the appropriate time were Sam Carmichael (Pierce Brosnan), Harry Bright (Colin Firth) and Bill Anderson (Stellan Skarsgård). So, unbeknownst to mom, Sophie secretly invites all three of them to the wedding — and they all show up, precipitating a lot of typical old-fashioned musical complications and a surprise ending in which all the characters pair off more or less appropriately (and not exclusively heterosexually, either!) and Sophie and Sky run out on their own wedding and decide instead to see a bit more of the world than the little island on which Sophie has lived her entire life. Also involved in the cast are Sophie’s old band mates Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski), more to get a few additional voices into the cast than to add anything to the plot.

Mamma Mia! is a high-spirited romp, directed fairly straightforwardly by Lloyd — at times I missed the manic energy Baz Luhrmann might have brought to this project — and dazzlingly choreographed by Anthony Van Laast, Tim Stanley and Nichola Treherne (even though the “innovation” of having a Busby Berkeley-style chorus ensemble executed by males was first done in the Village People’s musical Can’t Stop the Music! nearly 30 years ago), with a pretty amazing performance by Meryl Streep. One doesn’t expect an actress of her, shall we say, vintage (she was born June 22, 1949, which would have made her 58 when this film was shot) not only to be this skinny but also this limber — she does the dancing marvelously and her singing voice is quite good and certainly more than adequate for the material; indeed, according to imdb.com all the actors did their own singing (and mostly credibly, too, though Pierce Brosnan’s voice has a foghorn quality one would hardly associate with his character).

Another surprise was the number of ballad songs in the film; knowing ABBA’s music only from their singles, I’d assumed that all their songs were mid- to uptempo dance numbers. Indeed, when I heard the romantic ballads my first thought was that Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson had written them especially for this project, but no-o-o-o-o: imdb.com insists that all the songs in the film were pre-existing ones from ABBA’s glory days, and the skill and poignancy of some of the slower songs here (especially in the appropriate dramatic settings Catherine Johnson concocted for them) gave me a greater appreciation of ABBA’s versatility.