“July 17th. What a night!”
Incidentally, my personal Mamma Mia! journey started only one day later, on a July 18th almost 20 years ago. However, in my case, rather than a dalliance on the beach, that date refers to the American release of the Rowan Atkinson classic spy comedy Johnny English, the film that introduced me to ABBA with its ridiculous lip syncing of ‘Does Your Mother Know‘ (ABBA’s best song), among a handful of other references to the group. The film, and particularly the ABBA coronation scene, amused me more than most any other and became part of the constant rotation of watches and dot dot dot. Two decades on, while the Johnny English sequels were joyous events, ABBA fever is what really took over with both Mamma Mia! films being watched absurd amounts of times while making several ABBA-themed pilgrimages to multiple productions of the Mamma Mia! stage musical, the ABBA Museum in Stockholm, and the Greek island where the movies were filmed. Of course, while everyone’s second favorite bumbling British secret agent may have been my introduction to the group, it’s Phyllida Lloyd’s wonderful 2008 film adaptation of the long running Mamma Mia! musical that pushed the enjoyment closer to fanaticism.
The success of Mamma Mia! as a film is particularly notable for two reasons. Firstly, Mamma Mia! managed to make a jukebox musical (that type of musical made up of preexisting songs that is more often than not, horrendous) into something not only watchable, but quite fun and engaging. Secondly, it accomplished the perhaps more impossible feat of doing the same as it took a show from stage to screen. Adapting a work of art to a new medium always presents a challenge. Different media inherently require certain things be lost or restructured to be conveyed. In Mamma Mia, however, all the works from song and stage maintain the root of what makes them special as they make each change while taking on new meanings appropriate to the new forms. I was particularly struck by this when, after one showing of the film, I overheard a conversation between two audience members wondering if ABBA had thought out vignettes or stories like those in the film when writing the songs because they so often fit the plot perfectly. There are certainly some songs that don’t fit the narrative as well as others (though the use of a band singing on stage at a party was a fairly ingenious way to squeeze in some that really wouldn’t fit) but for most, they seamless blend into the story in a way that makes much more sense than in most jukebox musicals. That’s because the musical understands what the music is. There are exceptions, but the music is usually the type of fun pop melodies that may not strive for finding any great deep meaning but are perfectly suited for breezy stories about love and longing that find a perfect pairing in a rom-com that leaves behind a warm and fuzzy feeling and the desire to immediately rewatch it. Then, as it made the jump to the screen, it kept the fun of the show and most of the staging but incorporated elements that couldn’t be on stage like the sweeping scenery of the Greek island and the ocean surrounding it, giving the story a new scale with the same heart rather than inventing something entirely new or keeping the film too restrained (avoiding the mistakes that sank many of the most beloved musicals, like Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera, as they were converted into movies).
If there’s one fault of the movie that is consistently brought up, it’s that the singing can, on occasion, be subpar. Brosnan and his rendition of “S.O.S.” is the biggest offender here but, with a cast mostly made up of actors who aren’t known for their singing abilities, there are a few other notes that don’t sound quite like they’re being sung by a Swedish superstar. However, that criticism misses the mark entirely. The flaws in the singing, especially Brosnan’s, are what make the film so endearing. The songs were long ago hijacked from their original ABBA roots by people at wedding parties, drunken karaoke nights, and those taking advantage of the acoustics of showers the world over. It’s pop music fully given over to the people in this film as it encourages everyone to sing along with someone on their level. As ABBA always has been, it’s just a great time.