Rightwing Film Geek

Big summer blockbuster

This is my review of the most-anticipated movie of the summer:

I would seem to be the ideal candidate for this movie:

  • I know the full names of all four group members (Anni-Frida Lyngstad, Agnetha Faltskog, Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus);
  • I know which one of the members is not Swedish (the Norwegian Frida);
  • I recall noticing at age 11 that the jacket for the single of “Knowing Me, Knowing You” had the two couples embracing, though the song is obviously a breakup song (one of the earliest critical opinions I recall having);
  • I remember like it was yesterday watching Abba win the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 (24 points, ahead of Italy’s 18 and Holland’s 14);
  • I owned all of Abba’s albums on vinyl (though they’re at my parents’ home; I have no way to play them);
  • I can give on demand the peak chart position for every Abba US Top 40 hit;
  • I had a Usenet signature during the Year of Monica was the second verse of “Does Your Mother Know,” followed by a comment about Bill Clinton’s musical tastes;
  • I can recite the lyrics to most of their US hits by heart.

And no, I had to look up none of that info. Yes, I am a proudly obsessive Abba fan — a running joke with most people who know me in person and at work. I also like silly musicals or revues and have been known to overlook nonmusical performers or amateurish style in them. So yes … MAMMA MIA was my most anticipated movie of the summer.

Yet I dislike MAMMA MIA. No … I detest MAMMA MIA. And it has nothing to do with the fact my two favorite songs (“Knowing Me, Knowing You” and “The Name of the Game”) are not in this movie. Indeed, I think that to find the film truly detestable almost requires you to love Abba’s music. If you find the music bad or indifferent, it’s probably impossible either to be offended or to know just how boneheadely bad the song choices truly are.

Let’s start on what made Abba’s music great: Anni-Frida and Agnetha’s honeyed voices were perfect blends for each another, for the wall-of-sound production techniques that Benny, Bjorn and Stig Anderson favored, and for the keyboard- (later synth-)heavy and guitar-light arrangements; the songs were also as “hook-heavy” as a Joe Frazier attack, and about as resistable (being written by Swedes may have helped produce these lyrical hooks; native Anglophones know meaning too well to think of these pure-sound blends); the lyrics, particularly the later songs, are actually much more serious and deeper than the group’s frothy reputation and style. The result was the Platonic Form “catchy, smooth euphony that hides its emotions.”

Now, the roots of some of the musical problems with the MAMMA MIA movie are scrunched into that paragraph … there’s no way to reproduce the Agnetha/Anni-Frida blend without at least a few people putting their souls in Satan’s escrow account. Trying to turn the songs into Broadway show-stoppers or solo arias (with a couple of exceptions) is no solution either because those styles don’t really go for “catchy.” The claustrophobic studiocentric “wall of sound” technique isn’t terribly well suited for a movie, particularly one mostly set out of doors. And while Abba’s ouevre is filled with melancholic breakup songs — “When All Is Said And Done,” “SOS,” “One of Us,” “The Winner Takes It All,” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You” — MAMMA MIA practically attacks us with its determination to get us to enjoy ourselves, indeed FORCE us to GET UP AND DANCE PEOPLE!!!!!, like Richard Simmons on speed. Remember when I said last week that I hate “perky” … this still should give you a sense of how just how perky MAMMA MIA is.

But I was actually able to listen to one of the MAMMA MIA stage show soundtracks (a gift from my sister) without too much pain, but apparently that was because I was listening to the songs, disembodied. Having seen the movie … I’m now glad I’ve never seen the play because that “book” could not produce a successful work to an Abba fan. If a true-blue Abba fan knows the songs at all, he will be (well, I was) saying to the screen — “no, that’s not what those lyrics are about,” “no, you shouldn’t sing this song at this point.” Truly, MAMMA MIA is like watching an opera in which all the arias are from another opera. Practically every song is fumbled in terms of its words, its tone and its meaning:

  1. Despite its perhaps too on-the-nose title, “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” is a declaration of newfound love, not a marriage vow.
  2. Singing “Honey Honey” in response to a diary about your mother’s lovers rather than your own (“I’d heard about you before/I wanted to know some more/And now I know what they mean/You’re a love machine”) is either impossible or downright creepy.
  3. “Chiquitita” is addressed to someone of that name, and so it’s just stupid to sing it to a character named “Donna.”
  4. Dancing Queen” is about a tease not a slut. And since she’s “young and sweet, only 17,” having it sung by three women older than 50 flaunting their randiness (and not just to that song) is both jarring and contrary to the melancholic subtext of “having the time of your life” in such a transient way.
  5. There is no reason to perform “SOS,” “Lay All Your Love On Me” or “Does Your Mother Know” as verse duets — all three songs have consistent personae.
  6. Does “Voulez-Vous” sound like the kind of song that one would likely sing at a wedding party, much less one where during which all three potential fathers decide to connect with the daughter that may have been theirs from, in at least two cases, a one-night stand?
  7. There is no reason for a person without apparent jealousy-justifying signs of a beloved’s cheating to sing “Lay All Your Love on Me.”
  8. Do the lyrics of “Does Your Mother Know” make any sense whatsoever coming out of a middle-aged cougar surrounded by young boys on the beach?
  9. What kind of mind would think to sing “When All Is Said and Done” as a wedding toast?

Perhaps even the awful use of Abba’s music could be overlooked if the singing were decent. Some of it is. Though she’s completely wrong voicewise, Meryl Streep still sings pretty well for a nonsinger. Christine Baranski has decent stage presence and can hold a tune. But she, Julie Walters and Streep are just too obviously trying too hard to convince us that they’re having fun despite being over-the-hill femmes d’un certain ages — utterly wrong from Abba’s music, which is usually quite casually toned. None of the three leading men (Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, Pierce Brosnan) can sing a lick, which might not have mattered too much since almost all of Abba’s songs are female vocals. But listening to Brosnan (try to) sing “SOS” is simply one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever had at a professional music performance (William Hung at least is funny). Brosnan can’t even keep pitch, though I should note in fairness that his “When All Is Said and Done” didn’t leave me wanting to rip my ears out.

Even apart from the music and the singing, MAMMA MIA is a dramatic atrocity. I don’t care that a musical’s plot is silly, but this movie (and it’s obviously a problem with the play’s book) is one long, tortured contrivance — what does daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) expect to have happen when the three men arrive … DNA tests? The characters whipsaw from one reaction to another as the songs or the book require. For example, Walters has so much as spoken to Skarsgard once for 15 seconds in the course of the movie when at the 80-minute mark, she comes onto him with “Take A Chance on Me.” Seyfried is stuck like glue to two BFFs in the first act; they practically disappear like Lear’s Fool once the three father-candidates arrive on the island. MAMMA MIA also seems to be set on the only Greek island with an Irish-accented Roman Catholic priest who’ll perform an impulse marriage. And speaking of accents, every dialect of English was on display in this veritable Benneton ad of unhomogenized accents, supposedly among a mostly tight-knit group (ironically, Streep is NOT doing an accent). There’s also about four conclusions, including two encore numbers, which are offensive in a movie since they’re not sought by the audience but put on the film print.

Cinematic stylewise, MAMMA MIA is only well-shot in the sense that the views are pretty. The choreography is often clumsy, and there are some truly embarrassing choices — I’m still trying to scrub out of my memory a dancing/jumping line of flipper-wearing male swimmers near the end of “Lay All Your Love on Me.” And director Phyllida Lloyd, who also helmed the West End stage version, right away showed she has no idea of the difference between theater and film. Practically the very first thing we see is three letters being mailed out, the names plainly visible on the envelopes, but still we hear daughter Seyfried say out those names as the camera shows them.

Is there anything worthwhile in MAMMA MIA? There’s one wonderful comic moment involving Walters and a boat. And some of the songs do work somewhat. “Voulez Vous” probably survives best as a pure song since it’s performed by a chorus (as is part of “Dancing Queen”). “Slipping Through My Fingers” actually does fit the drama since it’s about bidding a child goodbye, and Streep and Seyfried handle it with understated aplomb and no attempts at zany choreography [vjm has Flipper Flashbacks]. Dramatically ridiculous though the scene was, Streep successfully invests the show-stopper “The Winner Takes It All” with the needed breakup emotions; indeed I actually thought her choking back the last line (Agnetha belted it out) was quite effective.

But those are just the pearls in an Love-Canalesque polluted ocean. I actually wrote this review while listening to my Abba Gold CD, convincing myself that this experience didn’t happen to me.

July 23, 2008 - Posted by | Abba, Phyllida Lloyd


  1. Rating out of ten? The review in the Guardian was also particularly scathing.

    I would never have guessed you as an ABBA fan though, Victor…

    Comment by Dan | July 24, 2008 | Reply

  2. The rating is 1 (the gag I did with the jump precluded my usual intro line).

    Comment by vjmorton | July 24, 2008 | Reply

  3. The RSS reader ruined the joke for me, sadly.

    I must say that while our tastes are usually pretty close, I can’t stomach ABBA. At all. I guess for your sake I wish it was better, but I’m not shedding tears.

    Comment by G-Money | July 24, 2008 | Reply

  4. Ouch… I don’t love ABBA the way you do, but I like them, and this just sounds awful. I mean, it sounded awful when I first heard of the play (“How do they string together a coherent story out of pre-existing unrelated songs?”), it looked bad when I saw the ads for the movie, and now it looks bad when I read the review.

    Please don’t tell me they’ll be doing the same thing with Depeche Mode in 15 years or so.

    Comment by Adam Villani | July 27, 2008 | Reply

  5. The whole idea of the movie (and the stage musical that inspired it) is uncomfortably close to that of the Peter Frampton/Bee Gees fiasco, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

    Some genius thought, “Let’s take a bunch of unrelated Beatles songs, string them together, and pretend they amount to a narrative of some kind.”

    On the plus side, “Mamma Mia!” won’t leave anyone wondering when Sgt. Pepper turned black (he’s an old white man at the start, but turns into Billy Preston at the end). On the negative side, I hear Pierce Brosnan’s musical number is even worse than George Burns singing “Fixing a Hole.”

    Comment by astorian | August 1, 2008 | Reply

  6. Can I just say that this father of a beautiful 3 year old girl had tears streaming down his face during Slipping Through My Fingers?

    Comment by Mark Adams | August 3, 2008 | Reply

  7. Mark, since we last met, have you joined some Mormon or Hindu cult into marrying off 3-year-olds or somesuch …

    More seriously … yes, as I acknowledged, that song is one of the two or three moments that threaten to make MAMMA MIA not suck. But since you were obviously paying attention to the lyrics, why had you not fled the theater by that point?

    I should note to everyone else, BTW, that I received a call the other day from my mother — the woman who said as soon as “Waterloo” was finished at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton: “that’s the winner.” And she told me that I am completely wrong about this movie and am overanalyzing it. (She and my father began laughing when I started repeating the lyrics of “Does You Mother Know” and ranting about why they hadn’t fled the theater either.)

    Comment by vjmorton | August 4, 2008 | Reply

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