July 7, 2008
OUT: 10th JULY
The musical based on the music of Swedish supergroup ABBA gets its movie makeover after huge international success on the stage. And it’s no prosaic Ben Elton dirge either, the story of a young bride-to-be’s mission to finally meet her estranged father at her wedding is cleverly crafted around well-known pop numbers like Gimme Gimme Gimme Gimme Gimme, I Do I Do I Do I Do I Do I Do I Do and other such repetitive titles. The first ten minutes is our introduction to the obscure world of Mamma Mia!, the uneasy opening of a can of worms the likes of which has never been seen…
Fresh-faced Sophie (Amanda Seyfried, the ditzy one from Mean Girls) works with her mum Donna (Meryl Streep) at a struggling hotel on an idyllic Greek island. With her wedding approaching and no dad to give her away, Sophie invites the three possible candidates from Donna’s sordid, club-singing past to work out which one created her. What a pickle she’s in when Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard (Orlando Bloom’s scaly dad from Pirates) turn up, all very charming and looking nothing like her. She spends the remaining drawn-out couple of hours trying to hide them from her mother until the wedding, while Donna bumps into them and tries to hide them from her daughter. And they like to sing about it.
A major hurdle for a musical featuring the songwriting talents of ABBA is their roots in shameless pop. The songs are certainly catchy, upbeat and boogie-inducing, but where variety of style and narrative drive are necessary, we get a bunch of ‘oh yeahs’ and the odd ‘a-ha’. You only have to look at the work of Cole Porter, Sondheim and even Andrew Lloyd Webber to know that the tried and tested musical formula is to use the songs to tell the story. As Mamma Mia stands, the songs are at best triggered by a clumsy bit of dialogue, and at worst completely irrelevant to the story.
But this could be excused if the musical numbers were something to look forward to. What little dancing there is was clearly choreographed by someone from the plumbing trade, the sound is mixed unforgivably badly and the production values look cheaper than running the stage show for a night. Which brings me to the singing…
It takes approximately one brain cell to deduce whether or not someone can sing. Not even sing well, just carry some semblance of a tune, for just a couple of lines. So how could a production team that isn’t utterly deaf let some of these voices meet the ears of their blameless audience? Seyfried has nice pipes and Streep wobbles through the first few songs but gets better by the end. Colin Firth and Julie Walters (one of Donna’s ex-bandmates) can perhaps be let off the hook- they know they can’t sing so talk their way through with tongues firmly in cheeks. Other bandmate Christine Baranski has the best voice of the lot and produces some of the only highlights, so there’s really only one suspect left to accuse… JAMES BOND!
Despite the fact he’s miming to his own recording, with every note Pierce Brosnan looks closer to a disastrous bowel malfunction and sounds like a deathbed Neil Diamond on smack.
Of course the big stars are needed to pull in the moronic crowds too stupid to want to see a film with unknown (yet outstanding) musical theatre talent, but there are A-listers out there that were actually trained for this sort of thing in the first place. Chicago and Hairspray mamaged it, what went wrong here. It may be that Bjorn and Benny’s hits are deceptively difficult to sing, but it doesn’t excuse the hideous murders that take place in the name of Mamma Mia: The Movie. If they had to have Brosnan, couldn’t they have done what they did to Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and dubbed the musical bits? It didn’t do her or the film the slightest bit of harm, and would’ve protected me from the unbearable harm inflicted upon my ears by a 007 determined to demolish the suave image he spent nearly a decade earning. The money saved on big names would have been much better spent on sprucing up the visual appeal, or even on a few jokes for a script that can only muster wry smiles when another famous song is squeezed cheekily into an obvious situation.
But what is fundamentally wrong with this misguided expedition to the planet Cringe, despite superficial grumblings about sights and sounds and a story that can’t sustain the film’s length, is its failure to capture the magic of live musical theatre. Something is always taken away when the performers aren’t really there in front of you, but whatever is lost should be replaced with tools that only film can offer. Even the musical episode of Buffy knew that. One redeeming feature is that everyone clearly had a wonderful time making this, and however ill-advised this energy is it certainly shows on screen. But as they let their hair down and enjoy their karaoke in the sunshine, you’ll be wishing you weren’t here, and that they were definitely not there.