Jukebox musicals have a largely deserved reputation for lousiness. But just because We Will Rock You and Oh What A Night shrivelled your balls, doesn’t mean that the idea is inherently awful. After all, they used to do revues and shows based around songwriters back-catalogues a lot 'back in the day'.
Mamma Mia is the reason that people still keep trying. I have seen the stage production twice (once in Dublin and once in London) and I maintain that the reason it works so perfectly as a night’s entertainment is not just because of the joy in ABBA’s music, but because it’s a rare modern example of a genuinely well-written book. Catherine Johnson’s script is funny, sweet and consistently engaging. It's more than a simple bridge between some fantastic pop tunes – it provides a well-structured plot and thoroughly entertaining characters all grounded by some surprisingly poignant inter-generational conflicts. In particular, I have heard lots of mothers and daughters talk about how the show affects them.
Between the undeniable skill in its book and score and a suitably cinematic setting on a sun-kissed Greek island, you would have to work really hard to fuck Mamma Mia up for the screen. Step forward director Phyllida Lloyd who, casting aside, seems to have made about as many wrong decisions as is possible. She almost destroys the entire production and in some instances, hangs her eminently game cast completely out to dry.
This is an ugly, badly choreographed mess. Lloyd, who did a superb job on the original stage production, simply has no idea how to shoot a movie and this should be the final word for any stage production which insists on using the original director to jump into a new medium. A quick example of this is her use of Green villagers as a 'chorus' (think Irene and the Pappas). On stage, this is a funny theatrical conceit. On film, its a horribly misjudgement that undercuits any genuine emotional engagement. While the film improves markedly towards the end, Lloyd destroys the momentum of the opening hour with one incompetent music sequences after another.
And yet, despite this, she can’t completely ruin the spirit of this show. She does, at least, get props for canny casting. Streep has garnered weirdly mixed reviews for the film and I can see why. It’s a schizophrenic performance, all twittery girlish mannerisms in the first half before she settles down and completely sells the more emotional aspects of the piece (while I won’t give her a nomination for her work, her rendition of The Winner Takes it All and Slipping Through my Fingers are superb). The rest of the cast are filled with scene-stealing pros who all do OK work – but Lloyd conveys no real sense of a consistent tone to the actors and thus there is a weird OTT quality to lots of the scenes.
Two actors in particular deserve highlighting;
- Pierce Brosnan should be ashamed of his work here. As an actor, he is dull and lifeless but as a singer he is atrocious. He is badly upstaged by Meryl during SOS.
- Amanda Seyfriend as Meryl’s daughter gives the best, most consistent performance in the entire film. Her vocals are beautiful, and she sells every moment with complete conviction. It probably helps that she doesn’t have one truly embarrassing staging moment in the film. I adored Seyfriend in Mean Girls but this showcases her abilities as a leading lady and she proves herself up to the challenge.