Armed with irresistible hooks, soaring melodies and near-celestial vocal stylings, the Swedish pop group ABBA churned out a body of insanely catchy and superbly crafted tunes - "Waterloo," "SOS," "Fernando," "Dancing Queen," "The Winner Takes it All," etc. - that made it the world's top-selling musical act of the 1970's and early 1980's. Several decades later, ABBA's music became the basis for a hit stage musical entitled "Mamma Mia!" in which a simple narrative was deftly woven around many of the quartet's songs. Now, the much-ballyhooed movie version of "Mamma Mia!," written by Catherine Johnson and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, has arrived on the scene.
The story takes place on a beautiful Greek island where the never-married Donna (Meryl Streep) single-handedly runs a modest hotel for an ever-thinning crowd of tourists. Her daughter, Sophie (the charming Amanda Seyfried),has never known who her real father is, mainly because Donna herself doesn't even know. With the help of her mother's diary from twenty years ago, Sophie narrows the candidates down to three (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard),then secretly invites them to her wedding in the hope that she will be able to figure out which of them is her real father in time to have him accompany her down the aisle.
On stage, "Mamma Mia!" succeeded primarily because it was able to keep its wafer-thin storyline modest in scale and life-sized in scope. But blown up to the magnified proportions of the big screen, the material becomes a compendium of overacting (Julie Walters being the most egregious culprit in that regard),ham-handed literalization, forced spontaneity, and production values that look both gaudy and chintzy at one and the same time. Moreover, the direction is clunky, the choreography abysmal (especially compared to what we were treated to in "Hairspray" just a year ago),the photography either over or underexposed (depending on whether the scene is set at night or during the day),and the singing not unlike what one might hear emanating from the local pub on an average karaoke-night.
In fact, there has always been an inherent problem built into "Mamma Mia!," which is that much of ABBA's charm derives from the crystalline voices of its lead singers, Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Faltskog. Take away those harmonies and at least a certain percentage of that charm is lost. Now the movie version of "Mamma Mia!" comes along and simply compounds the problem by hiring big-name actors rather than trained singers to somehow interpret the pieces for us. Indeed, this must be the only musical in movie history made up almost entirely of people who can't sing (at least in the old days they used to dub the voices in if they had to). One has to give Streep brownie points for at least trying to belt out the tunes, but her rendition of "The Winner Takes it All," which was the rafter-rattling showstopper in the stage version, falls flat due not only to her own inadequacies as a vocalist but to the awkward staging and foolish hand gestures she uses to accompany her singing (almost as if she were trying to act out the lyrics as she's singing them). Actually, I've never understood why anyone would buy either the original cast recording or the soundtrack to "Mamma Mia!" anyway when the real thing is readily available and clearly far superior to any imitation.
All that being said, I am still inclined to at least half-heartedly recommend that people go to see this movie for a number of reasons. First, because the music itself (written by Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus) is fun, infectious and finally irresistible, no matter how much the singers may be unintentionally stomping all over it; second, because even though their singing leaves much to be desired, Streep, Bosnan and Seyfried somehow make us care about the characters and the silly little predicament they're caught up in; and third, because there are a number of scenes that actually work quite nicely, the best being when Donna sings the sweet mother's lament "Slipping Through My Fingers" (a song clearly within Streep's limited vocal range) to her soon-to-be-wed daughter. Streep and Seyfried are both very moving and poignant not only in that particular scene but in all of the scenes in which they appear together.
For the half dozen or so audience members who aren't already familiar with the ABBA oeuvre, one can only hope that they will use "Mamma Mia!" as a springboard to sampling the real deal.