Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again - Review

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again - Review

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Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, the sequel (sometimes prequel) to the enormously popular, 2008 movie musical, Mamma Mia has finally descended on the summer. The original film was an adaptation of the wildly popular Broadway and West End musical, which ran for over 5,000 performances on the great white way, making it the ninth longest running Broadway show of all time, and the longest running juke-box musical. Given the show’s popularity it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the 2008 film became Meryl Streep’s highest grossing film of all time. Still the original film’s cult status and popularity continues to grow. It seems to play all the time on television, just a few weeks ago I saw a Mamma Mia sing-a-long on NBC. Granted, NBC should try anything at this point in the game, but even in its desperate state this sing-a-long seemed strange. But since NBC and Universal (the films’ distributors) are the same company it was an inexpensive grab and most people have a warm and fuzzy feeling about the first film.

The second film faces three huge obstacles: 1. All the best and most recognizable ABBA songs were used in the first film. 2. There really isn’t, as we say in screenwriting, a compelling central question and 3. Perhaps most damaging; there is no Meryl Streep for most of the film.

Bjorn Ulevas and Benny Andersson, who must be two of the richest people on the planet, are great songwriters, their pop songs are so catchy they cannot be denied by even the greatest musical snobs, but every song cannot be a hit, or even that good.  “When I kissed the Teacher” which is the opening number of “..Here We Go Again” is a b-track for sure. The lyrics seem a bit awkward considering today’s post me-too movement. Was the teacher who was kissed fired? Okay, I know it is another time period (supposedly 1979 – but the time line is really confusing-check out this VF take on it) still the song isn’t good. Although the staging of this song was about thirty times better than the staging of “Waterloo,” which shortly follows it.  Why is a second tier ABBA song getting great staging while a great ABBA song, “Waterloo” gets a clunky production? Where is Rob Marshall, when you need him? Some of the first tier ABBA songs get reprises here, you cannot deny the audience of the titular song, or their greatest hit “Dancing Queen”, but take a look at the clip from the first film’s Dancing Queen and you will understand what exactly is missing from the second film. In Mamma Mia the number starts intimately and grows in scope, going from an interior to an exterior and opening up its focus to include many women on the Greek Island. A visual metaphor, for “all women are dancing queens.” It had spontaneity, energy. It was infectious and joyous, something the second film needs. As always the center is Meryl Streep who literally transforms in the song from burdened to free.

The first film had a compelling, if contrived premise, who is Sophie’s father. In the second film, the plot is even creakier. This normally wouldn’t be a problem, many musicals; especially juke-box musicals have flimsy plots, as people just really care about the music and performances. Still an effort should be made.

The cast is game, and luckily Amanda Seyfried, reprising her role as Sophie, can sing. She may not have a Broadway belt, but she holds your attention and isn’t pitchy. Lilly James (Downton Abbey) who plays the young Donna, is certainly easy on the eyes; charismatic and photogenic, she has movie star potential.  She isn’t as confident as a singer as Seyfried, but she can sing.  Although the three young actors (Jeremy Irvine, Josh Dylan, Hugh Skinner) cast to play young Donna’s three lovers (and Sophie’s potential fathers) resemble the older Dads, played here again by veterans Pierce Bronsan (Sam), Oscar Winning Colin Firth (Harry) and Stellan Skarsgard the young male performers cannot match James’ charisma, and aren’t particularly good singers.  It seems like a general rule for the film was “it doesn’t really matter if the men can sing or not, but the women have to be good singers” – seriously.

Speaking of bad singers, Pierce Bronsan, luckily doesn’t warble much this time.  The fact that his vocals were compared to a sick seal didn’t wane his enthusiasm, he is having a great time.  This also goes for Colin Firth, who might be thinking, “this is so much fun, it’s like a big vacation, and my hair still looks good.” He would be brilliant in a deodorant commercial. Christine Baranski and Julie Walters as Donna’s best friends are back even if Streep isn’t. They too seem to have drunk the kool-aid and are having too much fun and are thinking “everyone loves this movie and everyone loves us, no matter how thinly our characters are written and how bad the dialogue is.” Let’s party! Perhaps this is my problem, I’m being too critical, when I should just relax and have a good time. Guilty as charged.

What about Cher? Cher can sing, but her appearance is otherworldly.  I am not sure if it is the soft photography or all “the work” she has had done, but she often resembles a hologram from a Disneyland ride instead of an actual character. The fact that she doesn’t move much while singing, enhances the suspicion that she may be a cartoon.    Also, has she been auto tuned? Sometimes her lips don’t match the lyrics. I understand that she was pre-recorded, but attention to detail, please. Cher is unflappable and untouchable, but considering the long wait for her appearance in the film, someone she trusted should have given her a heads up.  Let the hate mail come.

Spoiler Alert:

Sometimes you don’t know what you’re missing until it is gone, or it comes back. Meryl  Streep is only in the film for about five minutes, and they are the most compelling five minutes of the film.  She sings an obscure ABBA song and it is riveting and moving. I hate to constantly praise the greatest living film actress, but here it is unavoidable. She stole the entire film, and it’s a quick, sharp reminder of why the first film was so successful. You can’t bottle that kind of talent and charisma.

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again: See it with reservations, but buyer beware.

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