[7 November 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Sometimes, the cinema can be a lot like oil and water. Certain facets of a film can struggle to stay together, eventually separating like the fabled proverbial liquids. While it’s possible to try and force them to gel, hoping they coagulate long enough to fool the audience (and the occasional know-nothing critic), the telltale signs of disconnect soon become self-evident. Take the massive international phenomenon known as Mamma Mia! Based on the boffo jukebox musical featuring the fabulous ear candy of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, otherwise known as the songwriting duo behind ‘70s supergroup ABBA, this surefire smash has been taking worldwide theaters - and now Cineplexes - by storm. But if you look deeper, as the latest update and tricked out Blu-ray release from Universal points out, the element that makes this movie watchable is in constant conflict with aspects that threaten to fracture it into a billion baffling pieces.
For those unfamiliar with the clothesline plot, it goes a little something like this: Sophie, the daughter of former rock star and current Greek island resort owner Donna Sheridan, is getting married to her studly UK boy toy Sky. Hoping to meet the father she never knew, our heroine sends out three letters to three strangers she reads about in her mother’s diary - American businessman Sam Carmichael, Swedish adventurer Bill Anderson, and British banker Harry Bright. All feel compelled to attend the nuptials, if only to find out if they are the father of Donna’s child. All still have a mad crush on the middle aged maverick. With the Mediterranean locals along for the ride, and Rosie and Tanya, a pair of former backup singers/Donna’s best friends in attendance, it promises to be a wild weekend filled with revelations, revelry, and resplendent sing-along songs.
At first, it’s easy to forgive Mamma Mia!‘s many flaws. Director Phyllida Lloyd is a newbie when it comes to making movies, having gained her name and fame as a worker of theatrical wonders. By all accounts, her staging of this very show is not to be believed. However, working in the 3D space of an auditorium and transferring that to a 2D piece of celluloid clearly perplexed the novice auteur. Even though she sounds relatively confident about the movie she made, there are giveaway comments (found on the Blu-ray) which indicate that she’s poorly versed in the realm of motion picture musicals. During “Super Trooper”, Lloyd states that her “gut” told her that the camera should always be moving during the songs. Even though decades of standard cinematic style argues that a series of static shots and forward flowing edits make for more successful showpieces, she decides to track, dolly, and circle the actors like they’re quarry for a particularly famished predator.
Proof of what this film could have been had Lloyd ignored her off-base instincts arrives in the form of another extra - a deleted scene for the song “The Name of the Game”. Here, our heroine Sophie confronts potential father Bill beneath a windswept ocean side moon. As the song’s lyrics look for answers and acceptance, Lloyd basically shoots reactions. That’s it. No random pans. No sweeping photographic gestures. Just two talented individuals, acting and reacting. That’s what makes the music important - letting it, not the camera trickery around it - speak to the story. This is ably illustrated toward the end, when Lloyd’s lunatic tummy makes its most aggravating appearance during the powerhouse ballad between Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan, “The Winner Takes It All.” Here, decades of pent up love and frustration pour forth in a performance truly stunning in its power. But then Lloyd starts looping the set-up, our duo becoming enveloped in an unnecessary moviemaking maelstrom. Where once we could sense the connection between the couple, now we’re just nauseous from all the motion sickness picture making.
Lloyd is also in love with everyone who made her Mediterranean locations and surreal studio mock-ups “work” so “seamlessly”. Clearly, she is looking at a different version of the film than the audience is. During the commentary track, she speaks of how “flawless” the transition is between Greece and some interior backdrop. All we see is glowing, greenscreen digitalis (especially in that more unforgiving of high definition formats). During the title number, Streep scrambles around the top of her hotel, and the editorial whiplash we get between real life splendor and obviously faked scenic simulations is painful. Sure, Robert Altman suffered mightily when he outfitted the Isle of Malta into a working soundstage for his production of Popeye. But in that woefully underrated film, we never once doubted Sweethaven. Here, Skopelos looks like something straight out of a computer’s conception of a travelogue (extensive CG imaging was used).
No matter the wealth of added content extras (this latest version tosses in sing-a-longs, outtakes, and a music CD) or Electronic Press Kit praise heaped on the filmmaker and her cast and crew faithful, no matter the joyful noise made by untrained actors giving the words and music of ABBA their very, very best, nothing can eradicate the fact that Mamma Mia! is a very badly directed film. Little can take away from how finger-snappingly fun it is either. Obviously, viewers have been more affected by the way in which the songs celebrate life and love than care about issues like mise-en-scene or narrative logistics. The mega-millions aren’t bothered by the cardboard cutout characterization or “moon/June/spoon” sentimentality. These songs, so formative for many (even though few would be willing to express such adolescent appreciations), work like an enjoyment elixir, providing the subtext and strength the movie’s makers fail to find. For something to look so unprofessional to feel so polished is pictographic prestidigitation indeed.
Besides, an underserved demographic doesn’t like to be told that its prepackaged and programmed product is anything less than stellar. Call it the ‘Bridges of Twilight County’ Syndrome, or anything satisfies a borderline old maid, but Mamma Mia! has so many amazing things going for it (all the actors, no matter the vocal limits of some, are wonderful) that it shouldn’t have to suffer because of some first timer’s filmmaking naiveté. The ability to crossover from one medium to another is never easy - ask the bevy of wannabe thespians who got their start as musicians, and visa versa - but one should also recognize the inherent differences between the two before jumping in. Phyllida Lloyd will always be a wondrous West End Girl. She should simply give her regards to Broadway, and leave the moviemaking to those who have a cinematic clue.