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Monday, July 21, 2008

Mamma Mia!

I’m sorry I’m a bit behind in telling you, Dear Readers, about Mamma Mia!, which opened this weekend at the Essex Cinemas, but I ran into a problem when I went to see it. Amazingly, from my usual spot in the back row, I could see that the theater was completely full for the 2:40 pm showing on Sunday afternoon and the crowd seemed really eager for the movie to begin even before the lights went down. You could feel the excitement in the air, at least I thought it was excitement. It might have been gas, but I was giving everybody the benefit of the doubt. And then the lights dimmed and the screen blazed bright. Voila! Suddenly I found myself snow-blind and not by anything I saw on-screen. No, it was the abrupt reflective flash of light bouncing off of the silver screen to the sea of silver hair in the audience and then directly into my pupils. “My eyes! My eyes!” I screamed in my best Susan Hayward impression, which, considering this crowd, was the only place in Chittenden County where someone might recognize who I was doing.

Someone in the row directly in front of me shushed me which prompted a reaction from an elderly gentleman in the row in front of her who turned to look for the originator of the first outburst.

“Don’t tell Susan Hayward what to do!” He squinted in the darkness and whispered “Are you alright, Miss Hayward?”

I quickly grabbed the sunglasses from my purse, slipped them on, and then cupped my hand across my mouth as if I was trying to stifle myself. I nodded and hoped he was easily fooled or half-blind in the darkness. I’m not sure which it was, but he smiled, gave me a Boy Scout salute, and turned around, leaving me still barely able to focus my own sight on the screen past what had to be the oldest skewing audience in movie-going history since Driving Miss Daisy premiered back in 1989.

It hadn’t occurred to me that the only people that would be rushing out to see a movie musical based on the works of Swedish ‘70s Super-group ABBA would be people who had actually lived
through that era and were old enough back then to have enjoyed them as either teens or adults. My problem is that I was one of those people myself, having discoed through the entire 1972-82 period when ABBA ruled the charts, and it has yet to hit my consciousness that this was (gulp) more than 35 years ago. Damn! No wonder all these people in the audience looked like old coots. These are not my peeps, I tell you. I am not one of them, I tell myself. Why, if it wasn’t for my arthritis, trifocals, bad back, failing hearing and diabetes, I’d be as full of vim and verve as a teenager again. I now realize that what I had perceived as “excitement” or “gas” in the audience could well have been an afternoon Geritol spike, but it didn’t matter one way or the other. They were all going to get their groove on with middle-aged America’s favorite pin-up gal Meryl Streep as soon as the previews were over.

So, is there anything Meryl Streep can’t do? Who knew she could sing? And pretty darn well at that. I wonder if she would qualify for “America’s Got Talent”.

Here she plays Donna, the former lead singer of a 70s girl group, who has since retired from show business to refurbish a decaying villa on a Greek island and turn it into a hotel. Slowly. She’s apparently been working on it for at least the past 21 years because she’s been at it since she became pregnant with her now twenty year old daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried; tv’s “Big Love”). Sophie’s spent her whole life on the island and is now engaged to a local boy, the very yummy Sky (Dominic Cooper; The Escapist). Sophie’s life has been pretty darn perfect except for one thing ~ she’s never known who her father was, and Donna has always just dismissed the topic by telling her he was a summer fling with some tourist that didn’t work out.

Well, Sophie is creative enough that with a bit of sleuthing she finds her mom’s old diary from that time and tracks down three possible fathers, and then, pretending to be Donna, mails all of them invitations to “her daughter’s” wedding, figuring that only her actual father would make the trip after all these years. Do you even have to ask?

Enter Sam (Pierce Brosnan; Married Life), Bill (Stellan Skarsgård; Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End), and Harry (Colin Firth; The Last Legion), three strangers to one another but all former beaus of Donna who have accepted “her” invitation even though none of them have heard from Donna in ~hmmmm~ 21 years. Also visiting the island are Donna’s former band members, Rosie (Julie Walters; Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) and Tanya (Christine Baranski; Bonneville), and rounding out the party are Sophie’s best friends and bridesmaids, Lisa and Ali (Rachel McDowall and Ashley Lilley, both making their film debuts), thus filling the island with a lot of talented voices to ensure there is singing constantly from beginning to end.

Several of the movie’s songs are lesser known ABBA recordings, but the film is also peppered generously with the group’s mega-sellers, each fairly well written into the script in a way that works with the story itself. There’s a ribald version of “Dancing Queen”, an obvious set-up for “Money, Money, Money”, a salacious but cute “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)”, as well as an odd duet on “SOS” between Donna and Sam, in which Pierce Brosnan looks and sings like he’s had too much papoutsakia and not enough Kaopetate. Naturally, you can expect a hilarious over-the-top take on the title song, but there is also one terribly awkward misfire in the way too long and lyrically forced “The Winner Takes It All” which seems to hang on longer than the entire Broadway run of “Cats”.

I was duly impressed with Colin Firth’s beautiful voice as he led the suitors in what becomes a paean to long-lost love as they tell Sophie about “Our Last Summer” with Donna back in the day, and Streep shows her eloquent best at acting and singing together with the poignant “Slipping Through My Fingers”, but how could it possibly be a movie about a wedding without the requisite “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do”.

There’s another dozen or so songs included, but the best of the best come during the final credits and for those quick to dash out the door ~ it’s your loss. There is a mini-concert put on by ‘Donna and the Dynamos’ in all their glowing 1970s glitter with back-up provided by the three male stars in what have to be the most embarrassing (and, sadly, authentic) spandex jump suits in electric blue, cut down to their navels and accentuated by gi-normous platform shoes. What better ensemble to impress a crowd with for a rendition of “Waterloo”. I couldn’t help but wonder if the guys were wondering if their careers were facing their own personal Napoleonic end dressed like this for millions to see? I don’t think they have to worry, though I doubt I’ll ever be able to look at one of Brosnan’s James Bond movies without giggling ever again.

In the end, Mamma Mia! is a fine bit of fun for anyone with an air of nostalgia when it comes to the great music ABBA gave us. The film’s story is fairly predictable, but it’s not all that important in the overall scheme of things.
Mamma Mia! is meant to be a pretty package (it is indeed, filmed on location on an island in Greece), with great choreography, terrific songs, and a sense of celebration. It really does fire on all those cylinders, and I can’t imagine you won’t leave the theater singing your own ABBA favorite: “Thank You For the Music.”

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