Mama Mia! the Movie

Twenty years ago I could never have gotten away with saying it, but today there’s no shame in declaring ABBA to be a great pop band. By the early 1980s, some of the public had grown tired of them but, more importantly, they looked tired of each other – the breakups of Bjorn and Agnetha and Benny and Frida had taken their toll. Although the band never officially split, they went off to work on solo projects and now, even the lure of a billion dollars hasn’t brought them back together, for which they deserve huge respect.

The winner takes it all and, in the music business, the winners are the songwriters. Benny and Bjorn have reaped the rewards of their songwriting talents, their personal fortunes dwarfing that of their former partners. One of the reasons for that has been the success of Mama Mia! the musical, a stage production since 1999 and now a major film. I’ve never seen the musical, but last night I went to a preview of the movie in London’s Leicester Square.

As part of the event, we were presented with souvenir brochures and the cinema’s Compton organ rose from the depths to play a medley of Abba numbers. A DJ from Heart FM introduced the show before we were treated to special messages from Benny and Bjorn and then one of the film’s stars, Bond himself Pierce Brosnan.

I would love it if Bjorn and Benny got in touch to ask me to script a musical based on their songs. And I think I could make a fair stab at it – there’s a wealth of great material to work with. As a storyteller you recognize when your tale works and when it’s clunky and you’re trying to force it to fit within the original scaffold you’ve erected to fill. For instance, right now I think I’m forcing a section of the second Johnny Mackintosh novel that I may well end up throwing away to be replaced with a major rewrite. As a story, Mama Mia! is simply too contrived and clunky – the audience is frequently forced into groans or bouts of embarrassed laughter as a song that’s only half-suitable is shamelessly rammed into a scene where it just doesn’t fit properly. Then there’s the overall story itself, which is plain daft.

The acting in the film version is, though, nothing short of magnificent. Only Dominic Cooper’s Sky fails to convince while Meryl Streep’s Donna is superb – and her version of Winner Takes it All steals the show when it comes to the singing. It seems a long time ago that she was lauded as the finest actress of her generation. I don’t know what she’s been doing lately, but here she takes the flimsy material and makes it almost believable. I think part of the reason is her apparent love of ABBA and determination to do their songs justice.

Elsewhere, Benny and Bjorn both make cameos. Also, there’s a structural flaw that suggests to me that the editing hasn’t quite worked – either I fell asleep or someone cut a crucial couple of minutes from the film’s hen party that would have explained a lot.

However, in the end, what shines through most is the five months of fun the cast and crew had creating the movie – it’s infectious, and that’s probably enough to make it the feel-good film of the summer.
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~ by keithmansfield on July 7, 2008.

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