I admit it: Just like John McCain, I love ABBA. And though the hits of the Swedish pop group topped the charts not in my dancing years but in my diaper-changing decade, no song can cheer me up, no matter the circumstances, as well as “Dancing Queen” can. Mamma Mia, how can you resist it?
I am a fan as well — seen it twice — of Mamma Mia!, the stage production that breezily strings together ABBA’s greatest hits through a storyline as thin as phyllo dough set on the sun-drenched Greek island. (According to Mamma Mia lore, the show’s producer had to convince ABBA’s songwriting team, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, that the show would have a real plot.) It involves a girl’s search for her dad on the eve of her wedding. She invites three of her mother’s former lovers to Greece, where mom runs an inn, in order to find the one who should walk her down the aisle. Mom, a former singer in a girl group, invites her back ups and best friends to the wedding as well. Most of ABBA’s hits such as “Money, Money,” “I Had a Dream,” “Remember Last Summer,” and “Take A Chance on Me” get shoehorned in as the plot moves along.
Does it make sense? Only sometimes. But who really cares? It’s the songs that have made the musical a worldwide hit, seen by 30 million people and grossing more than two billion dollars. And, yes, I was prepared to love Mamma Mia! the movie as much as I love the stage play and my prized CD, ABBA’s Greatest Hits. I broke into a grin as soon as the daughter, Sophie, started singing “Honey, Honey.” Amanda Seyfried is adorable in the role.
The center of the action, of course, is Donna, the mother, played, somewhat surprisingly, by Meryl Streep, whose star power and box office appeal is an important reason this well-financed musical could be made. Meryl, who can sing, dance, and do pratfalls when necessary, says she took the part because she saw the Broadway version with her daughter in gloomy October right after 9/11 and loved it. And she’s pretty good. But because she’s such a fine actress, she hasn’t quite enough to work with, and overdoes it. In the very successful stage productions, the lead is not taken by Oscar-winning actresses. The producers know the audience is really just waiting to hear “Super Trouper” and “Waterloo.”
So Meryl is more believable than she has to be acting cranky when her ex-lovers (played by Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgard) turn up at her B&B. And she looks unattractively believable as an overage hippie with straggly hair, a sun-burnt nose and pink-rimmed, narrow eyes. Nowadays I just may prefer my Meryl with matte make-up and wearing Prada.
But perhaps I’m unfair, because she certainly does the job leading all the women on the island in a rousing version of “Dancing Queen,” that, yes, makes you wish you could get up and join them. She returns in flashy bell bottoms with Christine Baranski and Julie Walters, her back-ups, to reprise the song as the movie’s encore. And after all those years of playing roles such as Sophie in “Sophie’s Choice,” Karen Silkwood, and even Ethel Rosenberg, and with 14 Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress nominations, maybe she does deserve to have a little fun.
The sourest note in the proceedings, unfortunately, is Pierce Brosnan, who is convincing as neither an American nor a singer. Poor dear, he really can’t sing at all. Colin “Mr. Darcy” Firth is much better. Meryl has to use all her acting chops to look at Remington Steele affectionately rather than sympathetically when he launches into a very wobbly “When All is Said and Done” near the movie’s close.
Still, for ABBA aficionados, Mamma Mia! is mostly terrific. It is already number one in Great Britain, where the stage show was originally produced, and in Sweden and Greece for obvious reasons. And while it may be a girl-bonding movie for the menopausal set, unlike Sex in the City it is not, thank goodness, about shopping. It is about everyone’s memories of “having the time of their lives,” and I bet you cannot leave the theater without saying to ABBA, “Thank you for the music.”
– Myrna Blyth, long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness — and Liberalism — to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.