Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Friday, August 17, 2012

Mamma Mia! (2008)

I believe it was Christmas 1977 when I got my first stereo. I was just discovering music through friends at Meadow Park Middle School although I had already been exposed to some of my parents albums like Loggins and Messina, Peter Frampton, and Jim Croce. The stereo had AM/FM radio and I turned the knobs to some Top 40 station. That December, I recall the DJ playing C.W. McCall's Convoy, the Theme from SWAT, and a haunting love song SOS by the Swedish band ABBA made up of four performers: Agnetha Faltstog, Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, and Anni Frid-Lyngstad. ABBA's anthem Dancing Queen would be the only other song of theirs I can recall back then but never in my wildest dreams would I imagine 30 years later after listening to SOS that MAMMA MIA! (2008), a film adapted from the smash musical based on Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus's ABBA's songs would be made.

MAMMA MIA! takes its cue from another recent successful stage to film adaptation CHICAGO (2002). In the 50's and 60's, musicals usually went with the prettiest face and then dubbed in a better singer's voice (see 1961's WEST SIDE STORY). But in CHICAGO'S case, director Rob Marshall chose movie stars over established Broadway performers. And, he let the movie stars dance and sing. So we got Catherine Zeta Jones and Renee Zwelleger hoofing it and Richard Gere doing a song and dance.  And it worked. Film can get away with movie stars doing musicals because film can edit and reshoot and cut out the bad stuff.  It's not live theater. MAMMA MIA! went with the same formula and cast movie stars like Meryl Streep (who did musical theater in college), Pierce Brosnan, and Colin Firth. Bigger names attract a bigger audience.  It's fun to see movie stars trying something a little out of their comfort zone.  It may not always work (bless Pierce Brosnan for trying to sing and director Phyllida Lloyd for letting him) but MAMMA MIA! succeeds most of the time. The one Broadway musical to film adaptation that I wish had stuck with its original Broadway star is THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (2004).  Michael Crawford owned that role but my guess is the producers wanted a younger Phantom i.e. Gerard Butler.

With a title like MAMMA MIA!, the setting has to be in Italy right? Mamma Mia refers to another ABBA song but the film is set in Greece, on a beautiful Greek island.  Sophie Sheridan (Amanda Seyfried) lives on the island of Kalokairi with her former hippie, free-spirited mother Donna Sheridan (Meryl Streep) and helps run her mother's hotel Villa Donna. Sophie is about to marry Sky (Dominic Cooper). Sophie has found Donna's diary which hints that three different men could be Sophie's father. Sophie has never known her father let alone who he might be so she invites all three men to the wedding. So arriving at the port on the same day are Sam Carmichael (Pierce Brosnan), an architect; Bill Anderson (Stellen Skarsgard), a travel writer; and Harry Bright (Colin Firth), a finance executive. The three men are all drawn by the mysterious invitation and the chance to see their old flame Donna.

Also arriving on the island for the wedding are Donna's old friends from her Donna and the Dynamos Girl Power Band singing days Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters) as well as Sophie's girlfriends/bridesmaids  Lisa (Rachel McDowall) and Ali (Ashley Lilley). Sophie is surprised when her three possible fathers actually do show up.  Fearful of how Donna will react, Sophie whisks them up to the Goat Room, a dilapidated attic above the hotel. But Donna discovers her three former lovers which throws her into a panic as she thinks Sam, Bill, and Harry are here to spoil Sophie's wedding.  MAMMA MIA! tries to jam as many ABBA songs from the musical as it can between Sophie's bachelorette party and the wedding the next day in an amazing church perched on a cliff.

As Sophie begins to have second thoughts about inviting her mother's former boyfriends to the wedding, Sam, Bill, and Harry begin to realize that each of them could be Sophie's father.  They all vow to walk Sophie down the aisle. Sophie and Donna have a fight as Sophie thinks Donna wants to cancel the wedding. Sophie and Sky argue as well about whether they should get married or not. The pressure builds for Sophie as the day arrives. Sophie decides to have Donna give her away at the wedding and not her three possible fathers. The wedding party all arrive at the church on the tip of the cliff where the wedding will take a surprising turn for everyone involved.

If you're not a fan or have never heard of ABBA, MAMMA MIA! will introduce you to their music. Voulez-Vous and Money, Money, Money are two numbers that I enjoyed in the film and had never heard before.  Even Take A Chance on Me is performed which I actually just sang via Karaoke at a co-worker's 60th Birthday party recently (ABBA has nothing to fear from me). Director Lloyd does a decent job of staging the musical numbers and MAMMA MIA! has a touch of 30's screwball comedy in its plot and frenetic pacing.

MAMMA MIA! references Greek mythology a few times which is a nice touch since the film is set in Greece. Donna's hotel is said to be the site of Aphrodite's Fountain and we all know Aphrodite was the Goddess of Love. At times, the locals who work in the town where Villa Donna is located act as a Greek Chorus, usually singing back-up during the ABBA musical numbers. Sophie is like a siren in a way, calling Sam, Bill, and Harry from New York, Morocco, and London via her letter, luring them to the island. And, Sophie's bachelorette party becomes a Greek Bacchanalia with the hypnotic Voulez-Vous sung as Sky and his friends crash the party wearing horned masks.

Amanda Seyfried as Sophie and Dominic Cooper as Sky are a fetching  young couple. Newcomer Seyfried holds her own with old pros Streep, Brosnan, and Firth.  Cooper I would have liked to have seen a bit more in the film but it is really Sophie and Donna's story. Both young actors have used MAMMA MIA! to springboard their careers. Seyfried has appeared in JENNIFER'S BODY (2009), RED RIDING HOOD (2011), and the upcoming LOVELACE (2012) where Seyfried will shake her sweet girl image to play porn star Linda Lovelace. Dominic Cooper has become one of my favorite young actors, playing interesting self-centered characters in AN EDUCATION (2009) and TAMARA DREWE (2010).

It's interesting to see Meryl Streep in an ensemble film as we're accustomed to her lately as the lead, portraying real life people like Julia Child or Margaret Thatcher. MAMMA MIA! won't be known as her greatest role but she's clearly having fun singing and dancing. The three would-be fathers in Brosnan, Skarsgard, and Firth are solid. Skarsgard upstages the others early in the film but then disappears until the wedding. Brosnan and Firth do a nice job conveying the paternalistic feelings each discovers as they get to know Sophie. Director Phyllida Lloyd who also directed the Broadway stage version adapted by Catherine Johnson (who also wrote the musical) trusts her material enough to let the actors do their own singing. Christine Baranski as Tanya and Julie Walters as Rosie are a hoot and display some nice comedic moments in their numbers. Kudos to Brosnan for giving it his best shot and director Lloyd for letting him.

If a musical can be made from the songs of ABBA, I can only hope that there may be a future musical in the works inspired by the songs of Hall and Oates, Donna Summer, or better yet, Journey. 2012's ROCK OF AGES (also based on a Broadway musical) just brought back heavy metal. Congratulations to the filmmakers and ABBA for coming up with a fun story and using all their different songs to tell an enjoyable story that the Greek gods might even enjoy.

1 comment:

  1. Over in Britain we had another "jukebox musical film" called Sunshine on Leith based around the Proclaimers.