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Mamma Mia!

April 23, 2013

3/5 I mean, it’s not good, exactly, is it?

I’m not a one to be especially deterred by social stigma. If anything, I’m more inclined to refuse to follow certain patterns out of sheer bloody mindedness. That being the case, I usually avoid popular films until well after the hype has worn away; I only recently got round to watching Slumdog Millionaire and concluded that the hype was justified after all.

That is not always the case. Sometimes, I just know when I’m not going to like a film before I even watch it. I always try. I always give them a chance to thrash my expectations. Bad Boys was completely different to how I expected from watching its dire trailer. Mamma Mia! has been flashing its foul and crusty knickers at me for some time, always on the same Freeview channel. I look at its insidious grin out the corner of my wary eye and say softly: “Yes, I see you. I’ll watch you soon, I swear. Buuuut, I think I saw something over on Film4 I’d prefer that clashes. Oh botheration, if only I had cable or a recorder-boxy-thing that could do more than two films at a time. How gutted I am.” Completely lying to myself, of course.

Recently though, I was having a bit of a Meryl Streep season, so I thought Mamma Mia! an unavoidable part of life. On the off chance, you haven’t seen it, I’ll sum it up for you. There’re this mother and daughter in an island somewhere in Greece and the daughter’s getting married to some bozo who’s nature we’ll never know. Mother’s called Donna, daughter is Sophie. She wants her dad to be there for the wedding but her mum doesn’t know who he is, so unbeknown to Donna, Sophie whittles it down to three possible candidates and invites them all. From thereon in you’ve got the expected comic and romantic entanglements, intertwined with songs by ABBA and much cheesiness. And that’s all you’ll get from me.

It was about 11’o’clock in the morning when I first started and I got about two minutes in; the part where the giggling friends are boating it up in Greece somewhere. It was then that I decided that, you know, we have too much social stigma around drinking in the morning. It was high time I busted that particular taboo. Alone in my house. Out came the wine – white to start off with because it was morning and I have some class – from thereon in, things improved. Nothing like a lack of inhibitions coupled with a bit of a camp singalong to make a stupid premise and a plodding delivery seem unimportant.

Yes, I enjoyed Mamma Mia! while drunk. I thought this might affect my capacity to remember it and accurately rate it somewhat. Indeed, there were some memories of the film that struck me as so odd, I felt sure they couldn’t be true and that I must have slipped into a cosy coma for a few minutes in the middle. As it turned out, these memories were real and, in that uniquely wine-esque fashion, became clearer over the course of the following week. Apparently, I had been scathing and dismissive all the way through despite being alcohol sodden. I guess throwing wine over a leopard doesn’t change it’s spots, it just makes the creature a bit ill-tempered.

First up, the cast. My problem with the cast is that I like them. I know, it’s an odd criticism, isn’t it? The issue, I think, is that I’ve seen many of them in much better films and I can’t understand what they are doing in this one. Perhaps a favour passed hands or the producer owns their souls. Anyway, that comment is directed exclusively at the older actors; the younger cast I found to be nothing more than needless filler, lacking personality and very unprepossessing. I can’t even say that I felt they were particularly selected for their boundless vocal talent. I mean, they were OK – in a sort of Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift sort of way. For all I know/care, it might actually have been them.

The thing watches like it was a sort of revitalising holiday camp for people of about 50+ and the activities included running around, poncing about on top of goat houses and suchlike. The camera man was actually a paparazzi who showed up after their spa and seminar treatment to watch them role-playing as people who won’t potentially need Zimmer Frames in the next 20 years or so; then the director/course leader Phyllida Lloyd spotted the paparazzi, rugby tackled him, wrestled the film off him, looked at it and was surprised to find she was impressed, then got the cast to sing over the top of it to touch up the audio in post-production, after which it was released as Mamma Mia!

I poke fun at the adults-not-acting-their-age thing but if it were all just a camp and silly farce like Hairspray, none of this would matter. Continuing from Hairspray, it’s telling that Christopher Walken and John Travolta in drag and a fat suit genuinely makes more sense to me than Piers Brosnon and Meryl Streep as a couple. Perhaps the reason is that, unlike Hairspray, Mamma Mia! wishes to be taken seriously on occasion. It’s audacious, really. Every person on Twitter has noticed that, when he sings, Brosnon looks like his balls are being repeatedly kicked.

Anyone who watched the rushes would know that and work with what they had, i.e., change the tone completely. I can’t imagine a sane mind wiping a tear from their eye and pronouncing: “That’s a wrap, everybody.” Yet, that must have been what happened in a roundabout way; The Winner Takes It All is a song that Streep sings at Brosnon to express past regrets and the ending of their relationship. I get the bad feeling I was not supposed to be laughing all the way through.

Take it out of context for a moment; imagine there was no music. A musical is all about the music, but until you remove it you won’t know of the film is any good. It’s only a good film if it’s still good without the music; take Cabaret for example. I don’t like cabaret shows, I’ve decided, so the only thing the music from Cabaret added to the film as a whole was a thematic parallel between the scenes in the club and the darker surroundings of a country gripped by the fear incurred by the growing Nazi regime. No such parallel is found in Mamma Mia! and therefore the whole production is simply ABBA songs with a highly contrived plot squeezed in. Take out the music and Streep and Bronsons’ heartfelt scene essentially becomes nothing more than a person bellowing nonsensical remarks directly into another person’s face.

It isn’t the only uncomfortable moment. Remember the song Slipping Through My Fingers? Since I have no problem with ABBA songs per se, I sort of like that one; it isn’t the usual boy-meets-girl, boy-likes-girl,girl-finally-condescends-to-give-boy-the-time-of-day-then-decides-she’s-in-love-with-him-three-seconds-later, boy-feels-trapped-and-cheats-on-girl, girl-decides-she-doesn’t-like-boy-any-more, boy-weeps-even-though-it’s-entirely-his-own-fault type of rubbish.

By all accounts, it sounds like a song by a parent about a child, losing a child to time and inevitable adulthood. However, in the hands of Phyllida Lloyd, while this is going on you must tolerate seeing a 22 year old woman (Taylor Swift / Amanda Seyfried), sit on her mother’s lap. Um… I think not, in any human universe. I am a guy and to be fair she is having her toenails painted or something, but as a 22 year old myself, I feel safe to assume… No.

I said earlier I had no problem with ABBA songs. This is true. Unlike a lot of other males, I don’t simply object to ABBA and therefore hate the film. I quite like some of their songs, to the extent that I have them on my iPod. I am of the opinion that Mamma Mia! has the misfortune of being entirely the wrong combination of things in mine and others’ perception; James Bond and Mr Darcy with ABBA songs in a goat house sounds like some kind of force-politically correct joke formula in the making.

Personally, I’m more concerned about Streep, insomuch as Mamma Mia! is not, in fact, an accurate representation of the depths of her vocal abilities (or, any abilities). She’s been in theatre and sung for Postcards from the Edge much more competently. Since on top of this, the usually hilarious Julie Walters is also not all that funny for a comic figure and Colin Firth is a pale imitation of his old typecast, I’ll have to assume that Mamma Mia! temporarily sucks the talent out of people.

And what of the music itself? Try for the life of me, I can’t understand why they picked the songs they picked. I Have A Dream is the kind of song that anyone with an iota of musical knowledge could play within half an hour of having picked up a completely unfamiliar instrument. It really is that repetitive and simple. It’ll be replacing Yankee Doodle any day now in junior-pianists’ starter books. ABBA have a wealth of songs from throughout their career they can pick, but the resultant choices barely relate to the plot and aren’t all that musically interesting, so I can’t think what drove the decision.

It’s not all bad news. Ignoring aspects like the beautiful location – which is not praiseworthy except to whomever it was that secured the budget that allowed the movie to be filmed there – there are elements of the film that stand out. It is well choreographed, to start with – organising that many people to dance is no mean feat – and I do appreciate the mixed Anglo-American cast, simply because it works for both nations without one or other of them becoming the “token” Brit or the “token” American – a little pet hate of mine and all too common.

I also found myself getting quite fond of Christine Baranski (of whom I was not especially aware until recently) and enjoyed her version of Does Your Mother Know; quite apart from being possibly the only ABBA song your average guy actually likes, I thought her voice powerful and her performance energetic without being over the top – something her fellow cast members did not quite manage, in one direction or the other. Not to mention that the lyrics were flipped so the woman was the older party and the man the younger.

It’s honestly the only 21st century concept running in this film, which in all other ways is desperately 90s (unsurprisingly, since that’s when the original stage play appeared, albeit later in the decade) and has a definite stench of Sex and the City lingering over it. I dearly hope that I am not expected to think that Donna is “naughty” because of the shenanigans of her younger days. Please! My friends did worse before their 15th birthdays.

I find the film overall quite testing; 109 minutes (1hr, 50 mins approx) of camp frolicking with little substance. If you ever watched Singin’ in the Rain, you’ll know that the plot of that film involves the characters making a movie with sound for the first time, it being set in that sort or period. It was intended to be a serious drama but the result was so bad, they decided the only way to salvage it was to turn it into a musical. Mamma Mia! is what that movie would have actually turned out like if Singin’ in the Rain had been realistic; a confusing set of wall-to-wall songs that have very little to do with each other, let alone the plot (to use to term loosely), over the top in its humour and underwhelming in its drama.

I must accept that Mamma Mia! is immensely popular, particularly amongst younger women. I’m not blind, I can see that’s it’s warm and fuzzy and all sorts of other things that casual movie goers like. Plus it has a couple of men who in their heyday were sex-bombs all over the world, so that might hold something on the sightly older women, as would the familiar songs. I will say, though; forget male and female – if you are of an even remotely masculine persuasion, don’t allow your more feminine acquaintances to pull you into watching this with them, unless you can have a few rounds first. On them.

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