Mamma Mia Movie-- Highly Recommended:
I have seen the musical Mamma Mia three times, twice in Boston and once on Broadway. So obviously I like the play. Why? Well for one thing I like the ABBA songs, and always have, despite the more refined taste of my 1970s peers who preferred the melodious sounds of Neil Young, Van Morrison, and Bob Dylan. (Commentators: take it away!)

Another thing I really liked about Mamma Mia was the cleverness with which playwright Catherine Johnson wove the songs and their (largely) unaltered lyrics into an entertaining story. Not a deep one, mind you, but a cute Broadway musical-type story that was a teeny bit clever to boot. In contrast, I recently saw Jersey Boys and loved it, not truly realizing before how many big hits the Four Seasons had. I also knew nothing about the history of the group, which now seems odd since we knew so much about the personal history of other groups from the 60s and, judging from the play, the Four Seasons seem to have a truly colorful history. (Hint: jail, the Mob, and Joe Peschi were involved.) Yet the songs in Jersey Boys only relate very tangentially to the plot, which is about development of the group itself. Mamma Mia was a traditional musical in which the songs advance the story.

When the Mamma Mia movie came out and was highly reviewed, I knew the songs themselves would provide a minimum level of enjoyment. Yet, I was not eager to see it. As everyone knows, movie versions of plays are typically overblown given the need to expand beyond the confines of a stage and fill the screen with images and action. And the on-screen performances often seem phony given that screen actors, rather than Broadway performers, are typically cast to satisfy box office demands. Translating a play into a film usually undermines what made the play work well enough to be made into a film in the first place. And I am not a big Meryl Streep fan. I recognize her enormous talent, of course, but rarely look forward to seeing her performances.

Yesterday I finally saw Mamma Mia the film and was shocked at how good it was. I don't want to give anything away so let me offer a few brief reasons why. First and foremost, Meryl Streep's performance as Donna Sheridan was really impressive. Her singing was surprisingly good, but her dancing and verve were amazing, especially given her age. As a bonus, her powerful acting ability injected a real meaning and emotion into the songs that never came through in the play. (Especially "The Winner Takes it All".) So too was Amanda Seyfried's performance as Sophie, Donna's daughter. Because the plot revolves around these two characters, the strength of their performances elevated the entire production.

Second, and related to the first, because of the acting abilities of Streep and Seyfried, combined with the closeups allowed by film, there was an emotional element that was lacking in the play, and aspects of the plot made more sense because of it. Third, the plot itself was tweaked in small ways (I won't mention) that enhanced the believability of the love story, and especially the largely contrived ending, which in the film seems less contrived. Finally, the cinematography and choreography were both outstanding. Perhaps it works so well because the gorgeous Greek island where it was shot provides a naturally confined "stage" on which the action transpires.

As with the play, the male characters are mere appendages to the females around whom the plot revolves. While Pierce Brosnan's acting ability helps sell the love story, unfortunately he cannot sing a note, while called upon to sing an extra ABBA song not in the play. The audience kept tittering whenever he tried. Ironically, Brosnan's gross inability to sing made the singing of the other film actors all the more impressive as, obviously, there remain limits on how a voice can be digitally enhanced in the studio.

[My one beef with the film as compared with the play is a small but needlessly offensive plot change involving the Harry Bright character's background. (Warning: tiny extraneous plot spoiler follows.) A middle-aged man, in the play he is revealed to gay with a stable long-term relationship back home. Played by Colin Firth (one of my favorite actors), in the movie he has just 2 dogs at home and an obvious attraction to a much younger island native, with whom it is intimated he hooked up at a drunken bachelor party. Had the play and film plots been reversed, I might have been annoyed at the political correctness of the film-makers, but to introduce a derogatory gay stereotype into a story where it previously did not exist is stupefying.]

So if you like musicals, and especially if you liked the play, you should see Mamma Mia the film.

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