Week 35: Mamma Mia!

MPAA#: 44470
Showtime: 9:15
Ticket price: 10.99
Seat: rear right
Shotgun: Anthony
Attendance: approximately 30
Weather: clear, cooling
Food: Plain M&Ms, Coke
Expectations: low
Pre-show ads: none
Trailers: none


I hardly know where to begin with this movie. I really expected to hate it, but I didn’t. I didn’t much like it either. It’s difficult for me to define exactly what Mamma Mia! is.

Is it a musical? I don’t think so. When I think of musicals, I think of classics like Oklahoma, South Pacific, West Side Story, or more contemporary stuff like Avenue Q or The Drowsy Chaperone: shows that tell a story through music that is composed specifically for that show, developed organically from the ground up as a theatre experience. I also think of musicals that I hate, like the tedious works of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Why don’t I like Webber? Ultimately, it comes down to the music. Webber is known for spectacle; pyrotechnics, set design, innovative props, and so on- all good value for the increasingly expensive Broadway or West End experience. But the music! Apart from one number from Phantom, one from Cats, and a few from Jesus Christ Superstar, I defy anyone who isn’t a theatre geek to name a song that Webber has written. No luck? Now try naming a few songs from Grease, or The Sound of Music, or even The Rocky Horror Show. Some single musicals have more memorable numbers than Webber has written in his entire career.

Unfortunately, it seems that the musical has increasingly become influenced by the Webber style, favoring spectacle over the bedrock of original, memorable music that serves a story. Indeed, a subset of the musical theatre machine has become so lazy that they don’t bother to write original songs at all: they simply write a show around familiar pop songs, whether the songs make any sense in that context or not. The adaptation of The Who’s Tommy was probably an unwitting accomplice, but at least Tommy was originally written as a rock opera, an album whose songs tell a story; it was essentially performed as a musical on stage when the group toured.

I think a good term for shows like Mamma Mia! (featuring the music of Abba), Lennon (the short-lived John Lennon musical), or Jersey Boys (The Four Seasons), is “Greatest Hitsical”. Like a strange theatrical version of FM radio, these shows seem to depend on audiences being willing to salivate like Pavlov’s pets to the same songs they listened to on the radio twenty or thirty years ago. Does it matter? I guess not. People can waste their money any way that they like.

So after that long digression, what is Mamma Mia!? It is the film adaptation of a greatest hitsical featuring music that I remember from childhood, music that I never much liked. If nothing else, though, this film helped me realize that it is not Abba’s songs I dislike; it is Abba itself. I don’t like disco, I don’t like the “harmonies” of Abba’s two female singers. If you take those elements away and rearrange the songs or record them with other artists, some of them are actually pretty solid. One of my favourite songs by Marshall Crenshaw, for example, is his cover of “Knowing Me, Knowing You”- one of the few major Abba hits to be absent from this movie.

The music is, surprisingly, far and away the most enjoyable thing about the film. Meryl Streep and her onscreen daughter knock their numbers out of the park, and the rest of the cast tries gamely to keep up. The “plot” is preposterous to say the least; the film could have just as easily used the plot of Car Wash or Titus Andronicus and it would have related just as well to the music.

For a film set in Greece, Mamma Mia! is also surprisingly weak as a work of cinema; apart from a few perfunctory establishing shots and repeated shots of the inconveniently distant church, this film could have been shot in Orlando during spring break. The “Greek chorus” of extras were amusing, but some of the leading roles were miscast, most notably Pierce Brosnan, who could not sing his numbers as they were arranged.

I also found myself confused about the timeline of the film, in which it is stated that Sophie is 20 years old; but her three candidates for fatherhood seem to have known her mother in 1968 or 1977, depending on the scene. There were a number of slipshod screenwriting moments like this that pulled me out of what was an already tenuous movie experience.

Ultimately, this film reminds me of The Rocky Horror Picture Show; a movie based on a popular musical that is best experienced as a participant. If you sing along and do the Time Warp, you’ll probably have a good time. If you try to appreciate it as a film, you’ll realize it’s pretty terrible.

Crowd reaction at end of movie: none
Credit cookie?: none, but there is a sort of encore
For further consideration: if the encore is any indication, it looks like the cast had a lot more fun making this movie than anyone has had watching it.
Opening next week: Bangkok Dangerous; Everybody Wants To Be Italian
Hoping for: Tropic Thunder or Death Race

About Scott M

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4 Responses to Week 35: Mamma Mia!

  1. Not Yoko says:

    The Lennon musical was just called “Lennon,” actually.

  2. Scott says:

    Thanks, NY, fixed it. I must have been thinking of the earlier film called “Imagine.”

  3. Gavin says:

    You forgot to remember the forgettable Movin’ Out. The Billy Joel ‘Hitsical/Rock Ballet” well, it was not worth mentioning. I am sorry i did.

    in fact check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jukebox_musical
    Some of the incarnations are pretty terrible, some sacrilegious and some I wouldn’t mind seeing (just to see if they destroyed the good works too much)


  4. Scott says:

    Once upon a time, Mare, this kind of show would have been simply a “tribute” act where lookalikes and soundalikes perform the songs of the group in question. Marshall Crenshaw has done it a few times- he was John Lennon in the touring cast of Beatlemania and played Buddy Holly in La Bamba.

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