“Mamma Mia!” comes at you like a high-speed train and explodes all over the screen. It starts out at full throttle, pounding music and over-the-top enthusiasm, and never lets up. That’s both its strength and its weakness. A musical based on the songs of the 1970s Swedish singing group, ABBA, the story provides a simple framework for the music. Meryl Streep’s Donna owns a small hotel on an idyllic Greek island and runs it with the help of her 20-year-old daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), who is engaged to be married to the local hunk (Dominic Cooper). Sophie wants her father, whom she has never met, at the wedding, but she isn’t sure of his identity. Rummaging through her mother’s belongings she finds Donna’s old diary which describes three brief affairs, each with a man who may be Sophie’s father. Without telling them why, Sophie invites them all to the wedding.
Hung on the hook of this simple tale of Donna meets guys, Donna loses it, daughter finds father, are complicated, almost over-whelming musical routines (“Voulez Vous”), comic moments (“Take A Chance On Me”) and bittersweet exchanges of romantic regret (“The Winner Takes It All”). Since this was originally a musical written for the theater and has played just about every city in the entire world, first-time film director Phyllida Lloyd has directed her actors as if they were still on the stage belting it back to the balcony. The theatrical approach takes every emotion sometimes uncomfortably over the top. But the sun-drenched scenery, Greek chorus of very authentic looking Greeks and brave performances of Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard as the singing fathers, none of whom had ever sung outside the shower, makes this an enjoyable film to watch. Surprising voices are another plus. Who knew Meryl Streep had a great singing voice? Who could have guessed that Julie Walters (the frumpy Molly Weasley in the “Harry Potter” series) was a repressed queen of the music halls and could belt it out with the best of them?
To quote co-star Colin Firth, “You either like ABBA or you’re lying.” Too right. The songs have become part of the culture and are so melodically catchy that you’ll have to keep stuffing popcorn into your mouth to stop from singing along. The acting may be a bit heavy on the ham but the music is pure ambrosia and Sophie’s three fathers in the Elvis suits in the final scene are worth the price of admission. See you at the movies!
SUSAN JAMES can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org