First off; those 10 years since Mamma Mia! first appeared at the flicks went by in a flash. Seriously, this is scary time warping stuff. It seems like only yesterday (now I really get that Charles Aznavour ditty….’yesterday, when I was young’) when the friend and I could be found wedged in our cinema seats drooling over Colin Firth (mostly the friend); welling up at the mummy/daughter bits (just the friend); jiving along doing the cinema seat dance (definitely just the friend) and calling out ‘Oohh!’ and ‘Ah!’ in all the right places (again, the friend.) I’ve yet to learn how to let myself go in public places, or allow myself to fall prey to the communal emotional pull of the Mamma Mia mob.
Hence, my first viewing of the first Mamma Mia was less than overwhelming (I came around.) I found the ABBA songs within it to be just as turgid, ‘cheesy’ and relentlessly ‘poppy’ as I’d found them umpteen years ago as a teenager during the 70’s. Back then I hated ABBA, almost with a passion. A friend at the time bought every single album and I remember telling her that her musical taste was in dire jeopardy. Not only were the tunes relentlessly bouncy and samey-samey (a criticism I levelled at The Greatest Showman) but the lyrics were diabolical – I don’t think that’s an overstatement either.
Of course, some of that would be down to ABBA churning out naff 70’s POP not in their native Swedish language – and kudos to them for being so cleverly bilingual, a thing your average Brit is still determined to avoid. But, despite their cleverness, the lyrics are still awful. Take these verses from When I Kissed the Teacher; a gigantically politically incorrect ABBA song I was previously blissfully unaware of until I saw Mamma Mia 2 last night:
I was in a trance when I kissed the teacher
Suddenly I took the chance when I kissed the teacher
Leaning over me, he was trying to explain the laws of geometry
And I couldn’t help it, I just had to kiss the teacher
One of these days
Gonna tell him I dream of him every night
One of these days
Gonna show him I care, gonna teach him a lesson alright
Sting’s ‘Don’t Stand so Close to Me’ did a far better job of conveying the inherent dangers of the teacher/student relationship, and at least made an attempt at implying that maybe engaging in fornication with your teacher isn’t the best idea.
BUT, it turns out that fornication is actually what the feel good, life affirming, happy-happy Mamma Mia 2 is all about. Yes; promiscuity, of the unprotected sex variety, is the way to go girls if you want to get yourself a Greek island, James Bond as your husband and a daughter who will never know who her real father is. That’s a feel good, responsible message isn’t it? And dripping with double standards, given the cast’s propensity to advertise their film as an anti-Trump’s values vehicle by way of getting bums on seats. This is a thing the friend appeared to completely miss on our first viewing (there is probably a second in the offing) when she came out saying what a lovely film it is and had I cried like she did (no, I didn’t.)
Our heroine in Mamma Mia 2 is the 70’s version of Meryl Streep’s Donna Sheridan, played by the statuesque and stunning Lily James (both parents were/are actors.) The film opens with Donna graduating from Oxford of all places (this is an ABBA world and most decidedly not real life) via bursting into song whilst giving a graduation speech. This was the first moment when I realised I would have to not only suspend all disbelief, but chuck it out the window. ‘When I Kissed the Teacher,’ appeared as from nowhere; there was no preparation or lead up, just Lily James ripping off her clothes (an action to be repeated several times during the movie) to reveal startling 70’s flares beneath. She, and the younger versions of Julie Walters and Christine Baranski, then danced madly about in the aisles before rushing out of Oxford’s hallowed halls to dance on top of a barge in the local canal – it was nothing if not a homage to the psychedelic 70’s.
Very shortly after this loony sequence Donna decided to leave her bestest friends forever (makes you wonder why they kept bothering to turn up on her Greek island) whilst making a sort of half- hearted pact to stay in touch (via rapidly touching her left boob.) She then took off on a self-centred, 70’s style, hippy journey of self-discovery, fornicating hitching her way around Europe. Just how a penniless, jobless young woman managed to survive out in the world is never explained. But these are the sort of questions your average Mamma Mia movie goer must never ask themselves.
Donna’s first shag love interest appeared in the form of Harry, the younger version of the shy, conventional Colin Firth. All Harry had to do to get the free-spirited, strong feminista Donna into bed was to whinge that he was a virgin and would she be his first ‘go.’ The slightly drunk Donna took this as a declaration of lurve and immediately jumped into bed, persuaded by nothing more than a very dodgy (but entertaining) rendition of Waterloo (yes, Waterloo somehow had something to do with Donna’s first shag!)
Donna’s second desirable hump bolt from Cupid’s arrow was the younger version of Bill the Swede. Bill was blessed with a gigantic………………boat, which was all it took for Donna to rip her clothes off and join him in his bunk. In an effort to at least pardon Donna’s promiscuity here, the writers made it clear that Donna had no option but to bunk up with Bill, being the only other bed on the boat was covered in his clutter. Donna’s Oxford degree and 70’s hip chick mindset meant that she was far too clever and other worldly to simply give the boat a good clean and tidy up. No, the obvious answer was another quick roll in Bill the sailor’s sack instead.
Donna’s final route to getting herself up the duff was taken via the younger version of Pierce Brosnan’s Sam. Only this time we were led to believe that Sam was the one, being their rapid foray into bed took place on Donna’s beloved Greek island. But no, Sam was nefariously engaged to a girl back home. A fact Donna discovered via secretly going through his personal possessions, in her strong, feminist’s fashion.
And that’s how Donna ended up alone on a Greek island, as an independent business woman running a run-down hotel. At least we got a partial explanation of how a penniless woman ended up owning a hotel – a philanthropical local gave it to her! This was because Donna was once kind to a horse and made funny faces at a goat, which meant she was an animal lover and could, therefore, do no wrong.
In any other milieu, Donna Sheridan would have been labelled a chav; a slut; as somebody who got pregnant and then went on benefits (free hotel, apparently free food everywhere she went) but in the world of Mamma Mia, Donna Sheridan is a role model, a feminist icon for ABBA loving women all over the world to aspire to. And the reason for this is that she comes packaged in the Oxford educated, fabulously pretty, upmarket and athletic Donna in the form of Lily James.
I predict that Lily James will single-handedly start a revival in revolting, naff 70’s fashion. ‘I want that jumpsuit,’ I kept whispering to myself. ‘I want that floppy hat!’ ‘I want that long skirt, and that cheesecloth dress, and those boots and I want Lily James’ long legs and her long flowing hair.’ In short I want to be young again, gadding about around Europe (minus the shagging) and magically bumping into young Colin Firth, Stellan Starskard and Pierce Brosnan.
Mamma Mia 2 is obviously a ‘musical’. The word musical is in quotes because both Mamma Mia movies bear absolutely no resemblance to the musicals I remember fondly from my youth. I don’t know if this criticism has been leveled at the Mamma Mia’s before, being I’ve avoided all critiques other than Mark Kermode’s, he of The Guardian and Radio 5 live’s film critic. Mark Kermode is ecstatic in his praise of Mamma Mia 2. His witterings border on a religious revelation. He was to be found ‘stuffing his fist in his mouth’ in an effort to halt his teary eyed blubbering at the final chapel scene. And yet even he surmises that his critical faculties have gone AWOL; have died a sudden and unexpected death, in the face of the unexplainable onslaught in silliness that is Mamma Mia 2.
For myself, cobbling together a load of old ABBA songs, via the means of a very dodgy screenplay, which desperately tries to find ever more ludicrous ways to find meaning in those weird Benny/Bjorn lyrics, is not my idea of a musical. What we end up getting is an ensemble cast giving their karaoke versions of ABBA’s greatest (and not so greatest) hits. Watch any of the great musicals; Singin’ in the Rain, West Side Story, The Wizard of Oz, Oliver…. and see how the songs fit seamlessly into the script, so that sometimes you barely noticed that a character had suddenly broken into song. My overriding feeling from last night’s viewing was how ‘clunkily’ the ABBA songs were sort of crowbarred into the script. As with The Greatest Showman (which I grew to love) the Mamma Mia’s are just a collection of crowd pleasing songs joined together by tiny bits of flimsy, often ridiculous dialogue. The Greatest Showman, however, proved that that recipe can work and I’m sure that Mamma Mia 2 will gradually bring me around.
Which brings me to Cher.
If anyone was going to turn a movie around, then that person was going to be Cher. I lost track of Cher years ago. I don’t listen to her music, and I haven’t seen one of her many farewell tours, but last night I understood why Cher is an icon; why she’s one of the few stars who transcend the word ‘star.’
In a madder and more surreal moment than any yet witnessed, Cher appears towards the end of the film arriving in a helicopter, from which we see an exiting, tantalising bit of leg and some kind of glittery cane (Cher is Donna’s grandmother.) Cher is, of course, nobody’s idea of a grandmother and this notion is heavily played upon via a startlingly bleached wig, a face so paralysed by plastic surgery that it looks more like a Cher mask and a body belonging to a much younger woman. But it doesn’t matter that Cher can barely move her lips, let alone the rest of her face, because that booming, almost baritone and sexy voice heralds the arrival of someone who can actually SING. Someone whose voice is so distinctive and instantly recognisable that it even makes Lily James and Amanda Seyfried’s vocal warblings sound like very good amateurs in your local amateur choir. And Cher knows how to deliver a song with such effortless charisma that no wonder they put the rest of the cast into dark shadows, whilst concentrating a gigantic spotlight on the supernatural Cher, because nobody else can compete.
Cher is a powerful woman and The Mamma Mia films are all about supposedly powerful women. It’s made perfectly clear that the men are just extras, playing bit parts in Donna’s life until the real love of her life appears – her baby daughter. This is actually true. For most women (well, women like me) becoming a mother means that their husband/partner, like my suspension of disbelief, are chucked out of the window. Nowhere is the mother/child relationship more emphasised than in the final chapel scene where a ghostly Meryl Streep warbles a duet with her daughter Sophie, entitled My Love, My Life (yet another ABBA song I’d never heard of.) It was here that the friend lost it and wept to such a degree that her hair became wet (or it could have been the heat, although the cinema was delightfully air conditioned.) I remained stoic in the face of communal weeping all around me and even had to suppress a smirk at Meryl Streep’s very weirdly smiling exit back through the chapel doors.
Which was the other equally weird surprise. Meryl Streep’s Donna is dead. There is no explanation as to how she died, hence we are given no sense of closure. And we are clearly not expected to want closure, being her death is treated in the most strangely humourous manner I’ve ever witnessed on screen. This was achieved by Julie Walters blubbing, in a comic book manner, every time Donna’s name is mentioned, thus allowing the audience to find the fact that Meryl Streep’s character is dead hysterically funny; which our crowd defnitely did judging by the laughter (somewhat hesitant to begin with it’s got to be said – but really?)
In place of her live mother, Sophie’s newly refurbished hotel contains gigantic, alarmingly publicity type shots of Meryl Streep pretending to be Donna Sheridan; not the sort of thing you’d want to come across as a daughter wandering the hotel’s rooms at night. I can only think that placing inappropriately massive photos of Meryl Streep all over the place was a way of pretending that she’s in the movie for longer than her few seconds at the end.
So, my view of Mamma Mia 2 is a less rosy one than that of a sizeable section of the movie going public. I tried really hard to fall for its schmaltz, but an indescribable something kept me from becoming fully immersed in its weird and wonderful attractions. Maybe I’m far too analytical, or lack a propensity to fall for engineered sentiment. I wanted to LOVE Mamma Mia 2 because I’m an ardent fan of movies that don’t contain much reality. Part of the problem may be that we sat at the end of a row just a few feet from the gigantic screen and to the left of the theatre.. This meant my view of the proceedings was from a very odd angle indeed and I developed a crick in my neck from looking up.
I’m going again next week, with the husband and son no.3, and have booked seats bang in the middle in our favourite row. Maybe a more advantageous seating arrangement, and a second viewing, will help me fully appreciate the lunacy that is the Mamma Mia sequel because, in a crazy manner much in keeping with the film, I’m prepared to do all that it takes to face my:
Mamma Mia 2 – couldn’t escape if I wanted to
Mamma Mia 2 – knowing my fate is to be with you
.whoa, whoa,whoa, whoa – finally facing my Mamma Mia 2.