I love the theatre, but given my location and current budget, I don’t go anywhere near as often as I’d like to. Every Christmas, my sister and I take our mum and grandmothers to the capital see a musical, followed by copious amounts of cocktails. A couple of years ago, we saw Mamma Mia!, making it the only major musical I’ve seen twice live. I’d also seen the film adaptation twice in the cinemas, each with various female members of my family. Suffice to say, drink was also involved there.
This weekend saw the release of Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! Sequels to musicals are rare and more often than not flop with critics and audiences alike (shout out to Love Never Dies). It stormed into the weekend box office with $34.3m, beaten only by the might of Denzel. It’s currently certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and has even the critics who hated the first one warming to its charms. Twitter has flocked to defend the film from sullen cynics and we’ve once again been reminded of the wonder of ABBA. Of course, I live that wonder every day, but we can’t all be like me.
I love Mamma Mia! in spite of myself. I’m a lover of musicals but the jukebox format bores me and I’m also a full-time pop culture writer and film studies student, so reasonably speaking, I should be rallying against this new film as everything I stand against. At the very least, I’m still annoyed that, after a woman director and writer made the first one such a hit, they handed the sequel over to a dude, just like they did with Twilight. I’m not even sure I’ll get the chance to see this film for various reasons, but I root for it anyway. I’m not alone.
Mamma Mia! is the 7th longest-running musical in West End history, behind Cats and ahead of The Lion King. It’s the 9th longest running Broadway show ever, where it ran for 14 years and remains the longest running jukebox musical in New York city. Over 60 million people have seen the show live, giving it grosses of around $2bn in the 19 years it’s been running in various locations, including Iceland, Mexico, Estonia, Slovenia, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, and Thailand. The 2008 film adaptation made $615m worldwide, becoming the 5th highest grossing film of the year. It made more money than James Bond, Pixar and some dude named Iron Man.
So yeah, Mamma Mia! is a big deal.
It can be tough to nail down why people love a specific thing in pop culture so much, especially when it’s wildly popular. How do you appeal to such large swaths of people across a range of demographics? Typically, when people love something on this scale, there’s an equal amount of people who hate it. Theatre critics didn’t exactly flock to Mamma Mia! but audience kept coming, even as they rejected jukebox musicals about other beloved acts. Objectively speaking, the script to Mamma Mia! is pretty hokey and full of the kind of double-entendres that inspire more groans than laughs. The movie version also has to contend with some of the worst on-screen singing ever committed to the medium. Pierce Brosnan singing S.O.S. made the audiences in the two screenings I attended laugh so loud that we almost couldn’t hear him. Almost. So much of the stage show and film is built on the clichés and structural failings that make audiences stay away, and yet it endures.
Obviously, the driving force is ABBA’s music. Every now and then, a naïve individual will try to revive the legendary pop band’s critical fortunes, seemingly forgetting that we go through this cycle all the time. Everyone forgets how good ABBA are; how incredible those hooks are; how heart-breaking the lyrics can be; how they were a driving force in legitimizing pop as a musical form. Cynics tend to be blinded by the catchiness of their numbers, thinking that such things are incompatible with critical worth. A lot of ABBA songs are natural pieces of storytelling, especially the breakup numbers like Knowing Me Knowing You and The Winner Takes It All. Few bands can swing so effortlessly between joy and sorrow like ABBA, and make your feet tap on every part of the spectrum.
They’re a band of stories but their catalogue doesn’t naturally bend itself to a musical format. A lot of the story beats in Mamma Mia! are blatantly weak excuses to shove in another ABBA song. Sometimes, the strain is so obvious that you get phantom twinges in your neck. Yet it’s hard to say that anyone really cares about that. Yeah, it’s a stretch but everyone knows why they’re there. This is about the music, first and foremost, and if you’re with a group of women who are two processos in and wearing feather boas, there’s nothing better than the familiar beat of Voulez Vous?
The story is not great and the characters are more plot devices turned one-liner delivery machines, but Mamma Mia! has an ace up its sleeve. This is a story about women. The men play their part but the emotional kicks, the best songs, and the giddy mood of it all is distinctly feminine. The target audience is women, particularly those above 35. The movie is driven by the upcoming wedding of a 20-year-old but the force of the story is a middle-aged woman and her friends who drink wine, talk about sex and lament how shitty the world can be to them. The women are vibrant and gorgeous but it’s the dudes who are objectified. You quietly cheer Meryl Streep on for managing to bag Bond, Mr. Darcy and papa Skarsgard all in the space of a few weeks. Donna doesn’t need a man, but she can get one in a heartbeat and they’re bloody grateful for the privilege, thank you very much!
Mamma Mia! is the kind of story we’re always told doesn’t exist anymore: It’s driven by women and unabashed girliness; the men are set dressing while the protagonist is an older woman; it doesn’t take itself seriously for a moment and nor is anyone involved with the project; it practically gallops towards its badness in places and makes you love it as a result; it’s a rom-com where women aren’t saved or positioned as prizes to be one by strutting dicks; indeed, the men are utterly ridiculous and that only makes them more loveable than if they’d been your typical on-screen heroes.
It’s joy. It’s celebration. It’s pop.
Escapism hasn’t become the driving pop culture force during these dark times like many had predicted, but Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! cannot help but feel much a much-needed antidote to our cynicism right now.
Besides, it’s got Cher in it. What more do you people want?!
And you’d better all start sharing your favourite ABBA songs in the comments!