One of my guilty pleasures is listening to flop Broadway musicals. One of the most charming of these, one that by its cast album leaves you wondering how it could have failed, is the delicious (at least musically) Burton Lane-Alan Jay Lerner flopola from 1977, "Carmelina." Lane and Lerner did some fine work for MGM (Royal Wedding) before crafting their mid-60s moderate success "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" (which famously started as a collaboration between Lerner and Richard Rodgers, and was called at that point "I Picked a Daisy"), which of course became a flop film starring someone named Streisand or something like that, directed by Vincente Minnelli in one of his last gasps as a major musical director. "Carmelina" was a charming tale about a single, never married woman with a now grown daughter who is suddenly encountered by the three men who might be the daughter's father. Sound familiar? No, no, no, not the Gina Lollabrigida film Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (which Lerner and Lane adamantly denied they based their musical on, evidence notwithstanding), but Mamma Mia!, the jukebox musical culled from the unforgettable (literally) works of Swedish megagroup ABBA. Like "Carmelina"'s creators before it, Mamma Mia!'s original stage version's bookwriter Catherine Johnson, who came on board the film version as scenarist, also denies any connection or knowledge of the Lollabrigida film, evidence notwithstanding.
I am generally not a fan of these jukebox musicals, for a very personal reason--I'm a professional composer and lyricist with at least a couple of produced musicals to my name and I am loathe to consider the consequences of crafting shows around already existing songs. If producers keep on raiding the libraries of The Beach Boys or John Lennon or The Four Seasons or any of the other artists' music around which recent musicals have been built, how are we ever going to discover the next Lerner or Lane or Rodgers or Sondheim? If producers wanted ABBA music in a film musical, why not just adapt "Chess," their stage collaboration with Tim Rice, I wondered. That said, I must grudgingly give in to Mamma Mia's inescapable charm and high spirits, something this film capitalizes on in spades, with some truly stunning location photography in Greece to spice up the visuals.
I've already pretty much summed up the plot of Mamma Mia! above. If you're looking for a brilliantly integrated musical, with sung moments springing naturally out of dialogue, you'd better look elsewhere. Surprisingly, though, Mamma Mia! manages to set up the various beyond catchy Benny Andersson-Björn Ulvaeus pop mini-masterpieces rather well. The filmmakers went into this project insisting that all the actors do their own singing, and while "crooners" like Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth (let alone Stellan Skarsgård, who is very, very brave to have done his own singing) are not going to go down in history as much more than barely competent, star Meryl Streep, who has already proven her musical chops theatrically and previously in such films as Postcards from the Edge, is marvelous, if a bit too country-yodelish for this patently pop score. If Amanda Seyfried could have stood a little more vocal coaching to control her vibrato, old pro's like Christine Baranski and even Julie Walters are there to take your breath away in some over the top performances, vocally and otherwise. There is also the occasional sly moment, including a very brief cameo by ABBA's Benny Andersson as well as a very funny reference to the ancient dramatic trope of the Greek Chorus.
This is one glorious looking musical, even if the bulk of it was shot on a Pinewood soundstage. Enough establishing and location shots are included of the fantastically beautiful island of Skopelos to not only open up the stagebound antics, but to also give Mamma Mia! one of the most distinctive looks of any film musical since, perhaps, Absolute Beginners. While some of the process photography is a little too obvious in this Blu-ray, there is an overall sunniness to this entire production, both literal and figurative, that gives it a sort of glow that I can't remember any other recent musical having. While the choreography is generally fairly minimal (at least for this sort of mega-production), first time film director Phyllida Lloyd (who helmed the original stage version) has woven together a tightly edited and exceedingly well shot film that capitalizes on the music wonderfully while never worrying too much about such nettlesome items as character or motivation, providing enough other movement that one ultimately doesn't miss huge dance numbers a la Robbins or Fosse that much in the long run. Lloyd is in fact (in my book, anyway) the real star of this production, as Mamma Mia! boasts the sort of assured visual sweep and pure delight that was the hallmark of Mr. Minnelli in his hey-day, and that's saying quite a lot. This is a fast, bright and breezy entertainment, with very little if any pretension, and Lloyd's style fits that ethos to a tee.
Some naysayers are probably going to have qualms, and they are quite correct, about some of the voices in the film. However, the thing about ABBA was the almost Phil Spector-esque wall of sound of multi-layered backups, and in most of these interpolated tunes, those are reproduced perfectly, at times in fact overwhelming the lead vocals (which is not always a bad thing). Others are probably going to come at this from a curmudgeonly place (as I in fact did), questioning its paper-thin premise while lamenting this repurposing of some of the most distinctive pop pleasures of a bygone age. I have to say that Mamma Mia! may not deserve its newly minted status as the most successful film musical of "all time" (until the next mega-hit, anyway), but it is certainly one of the most enjoyable romps, musical or otherwise, in recent memory, with something simple at its core that so many films nowadays seem to forget about: it's fun.