Su-per-per trouper-pers

When I was a high-minded youth, I despised Abba. They stood for all that was empty, formulaic and ridiculous about pop music (as opposed to rock’n’roll, which was of course deep and authentic). The fact that the Swedish quartet had a seemingly endless string of number-one hits damned them forever to the realm of commercial rubbish.

It took some time for me to re-evaluate that attitude. Now I see their immense pop skills, which include the ability to implant a tune in one’s head even if you don’t like it very much at all — the titular song for the new movie Mamma Mia! would be an example. There are a few of their songs that I have come to like a lot, though there’s a fair number I still dislike.

So it was amusing to watch Mamma Mia! and get a sense of which Abba tunes I can stand and which I still can’t get on with. For instance, Does Your Mother Know and Chiquitita are silly but fun. Both have a cheesy sub-disco bounce that is nearly irresistible. Dancing Queen will not be gainsaid. I still can’t see much virtue in Money, Money, Money, and I’m not mad about Honey, Honey, but I appreciate the way they are turned to useful narrative effect in this film.

For that’s how it works: a storyline has been devised around a bunch of Abba songs. The original stage show (it opened in 1999) made lots of money, money, money, and hence it is now a movie, honey. When Catherine Johnson, the writer of the “book” (as it’s called in the world of musicals), is unable to link a song to a plot element she simply inserts it as a mini-show given by the characters, who naturally have a past as semi-amateur performers.

Hence the character played by Meryl Streep, with her two best friends (Julie Walters and Christine Baranski), perform a reprise of their one-time party number, Super Trouper. Since this is about a wedding, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do inevitably gets an outing; but, thank heavens, we are spared Fernando and Ring Ring, while that exceptional example of glitzy schmaltz, Thank You for the Music, is worked in only at the end credits.

The story constructed around the songs is set on an idyllic Greek island where there’s a little hotel run by Donna (Streep), the titular mamma, though she’s not Italian, and her 20-year-old daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried). The latter has been brought up without knowing who her father is, but now she has purloined Mom’s diary of years gone by and discovered three options (played by Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård). So, without telling Mom, she has invited them all to the wedding, hoping to work out who’s her dad.

Complications ensue, of course, some of which are there simply to squeeze in another Abba song. There are probably about five songs too many in the movie, and it didn’t need to be 108 minutes long (it could have been 80, in fact), but it is undeniably enjoyable — if you’re in the right mood. We whiz from number to number with barely a pause (certainly not a pause for reflection), and most of the characters get a turn, while in the background chirps what can only be called a Greek chorus.

The revelation is Meryl Streep. She’s the uber-super-trouper here. We knew she could act; we could even surmise that if required she might be able to do the splits while jumping in the air (at age 59, nogal) — but who knew she could sing? Well, she crooned a bit in Postcards from the Edge and A Prairie Home Companion, but Mamma Mia! reveals that not only can Streep sing, she can sing exceptionally well. And it’s not just the contrast with Brosnan, whose rendition of SOS had an audience of hardened critics rolling in the aisles — not that it’s a comedy number.

Streep is so good because she can act a song as well as sing it. She can give it an emotional life it may never have had before. Her version of The Winner Takes it All, towards the end of Mamma Mia!, is simply superb. The song always had a reasonably nice tune, but its words are close to nonsense. Despite that obstacle, Streep turns it into something very touching. In fact, it’s the only moment of real emotional resonance in the movie.

Not all songs work as well. Lay All Your Love on Me, done as a duet of the two young people about to be wed, is simply excruciating. Brosnan’s ear-ache of an SOS I have already mentioned; luckily Skarsgård and Firth barely get to sing at all.

The film undoubtedly has major flaws. Despite a busy camera, it still feels like a stage show. The humour is often forced, like when people at a party desperately hack a laugh out of their throats to show what good sports they are. The token resolution of Firth’s storyline is simply thrust upon us. And, if this is a wedding, it feels as though most of the guests are being ignored — if they are there at all.

Also, there’s a problem with the time frame. If the daughter is 20, then Donna had her promiscuous youth in the late 1980s. Yet her lovers of the period (as revealed in old photos) seem to belong to an era two decades before that. Maybe the film is taking place in 1987, but it’s not clear. It’s weird that characters who had nicknames such as “Headbanger” 20 years ago are now singing Abba. It’s as though Abba stands for — or absorbs — the entire world of popular music, which can’t be an idea that makes Black Sabbath happy. (We await their musical with patience.)

But no matter: Mamma Mia! does not take place in the real world, but rather within the Abba songbook, and it proceeds with such mind-numbing zest that one simply has to go along. It’s like a wedding guest whose exuberance and sentimentality you can’t bear to puncture, at least not on the happy day itself. Just have another drink. As with those Abba tunes you can’t get out of your head even if you hate them, Mamma Mia! is not something you can resist. Do I submit? I do, I do, I do, I do, I do.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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