The last major movie musical to hit theaters was too dark and demented, which might explain why Sweeney Todd (2007) did so poorly at the box office. People want their musicals to be bright and cheery, which this film definitely is, although I wouldn't expect any musical produced by Tom Hanks and wife Rita Wilson to be anything less. Result? This movie is set to make more moolah than any other movie musical in history, besting last year's Hairspray.
The first time I heard Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep sing was two years ago. She crooned alongside Lily Tomlin and Garrison Keilor in the Robert Altman swan song, A Prairie Home Companion (2006). Streep was cool and relaxed, at times like a nightclub singer. Here, she's more energetic, jumping, flailing, and strutting her stuff like she was an actual Broadway star.
Streep plays Donna, a single mom who is the owner and manager of a villa on a beautiful Greek island, and, who is preparing for her 20-year-old daughter's wedding, which is only days away.
Fresh-faced Amanda Seyfried plays Sophie, Donna's wide-eyed, long, blonde-haired beauty of a daughter. It's Sophie who actually kicks off this singing bonanza when she reveals in between musical interludes that, unbeknownst to her mother, Sophie has stolen Donna's diary and has discovered her father could be one of three men.
Because Sophie wants her father there to give her away at the wedding, she invites all three men to the villa. Sophie then takes it upon herself to figure out, which one is her biological daddy. This could almost be the plot of Jerry Springer: The Opera, or, Maury Povich: The Musical.
Of the three potential fathers, the most promising is Sam, played by Pierce Brosnan. The others include Bill, played by Stellan Skarsgard (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World End and Good Will Hunting), and Harry, played by Colin Firth (Bridget Jones Diary and Shakespeare in Love).
The reason Sam seems like the most promising potential father is because, for one, he's not just potential, he actually is a father to two sons. Bill and Harry, despite both being in their forties and fifties, and possibly older, don't have kids. One hasn't wanted any up until now and the other, beyond his one night with Donna, can't have any kids, but not because he's impotent.
The other reason Sam seems like the most promising potential father is because immediately upon learning that he might have a daughter he never knew, he's not like Bill or Harry who feel guilty or who feel like they have to be there out of guilt or obligation. No. Sam acts like a father by involving himself in Sophie's life and taking a more active interest in her well-being.
But, besides all that, Sam seems like the most promising because he's the best singer of the bunch. Brosnan provides some fairly decent vocals, as he serenades Streep several times, sweetly and sincerely, most strikingly with the lyrics to "S.O.S."
While Sam auditions for the role of father of the bride, this show isn't called "Mamma Mia!" for nothing, and it's Meryl Streep as mamma who bears the biggest burden. She sings the most songs and leads or duets in a lot of the others, and Streep scores. She sells it so well that any Broadway or music video star to follow should take notes, especially on songs like "Slipping Through My Fingers" and "Winner Takes It All." Streep emotes and gestures so passionately to convince us of the moment so much, leading to a heartbreaking closeup on her face that gives life to the lyrics.
A lot of the other, bigger, musical numbers are parades through and around the beautiful villa, typically ending in a pier of people diving into water. One such includes Streep belting out the 1976 international hit song, "Money Money Money," a song that emphasizes Donna's need for someone to take care of her, in spite of her notions that she loves her independence and newfound man-less existence.
Deep inside, however, Donna wants the wedding and the happily ever after with a lover by her side too. She just can't bring herself to admit it. So, the lady doth protests too much. Yet, the return and the courtship of Sophie's father might be just what she needs, as she sings, "Here I go again / My my, how can I resist you? / Mamma mia, does it show again? / My my, just how much I've missed you."
Donna's two best friends, Tanya, played by Emmy-nominated actress Christine Baranski (Frasier and Cybill), and, Rosie, played by Oscar-nominated actress Julie Walters (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Billy Elliot), arrive and rekindle memories of their girl group called the Dynamos, which could have been the Supremes if they were blacker.
At Sophie's bachelorette party, they put on an act that could have been ripped straight from the Supremes' playbook. They sing, "Super Trooper" in slinky, gaudy 60s and 70s go-go attire, equipped with high-heeled, platform shoes.
Of the dozen or so songs by ABBA that are featured here and really form the foundation for this story, the best, which the Dynamos sing to Donna to lift her out her funk and will probably have everyone in the theater bopping their head, snapping their fingers, or tapping their toes, is "Dancing Queen."
It's a song done here that inspires every young girl or adult woman that she can do anything as long as she remembers to maintain the spirit of music, that fun, youthful spirit. Here, it transcends more than the Friday-night, disco fever that ABBA was relating. They sing, "You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life / See that girl, watch that scene, dig in the Dancing Queen."
And, that's what good music, and especially a good musical should do. It should transcend as well as perfectly translate the feelings of its music. Director Phyllida Lloyd, who directed this as well as the original Broadway production, does a good job of accomplishing that. If nothing, she gives us a little, bright and cheery fun.
Yes, this film is bright and cheery. Even its night scenes where you only get illumination from the moonlight rippling in the water, this film is bright. In the day, Lloyd enriches our eyes with gorgeous scenery and gorgeous snapshots of her actors. A lot of the cinematography is just sun-soaked and sexy.
Two particular beach scenes come to mind. One involves Christine Baranski swooning over a young, long-dreadlocked, flirtatious, island boy. The other involves Dominic Cooper who plays Sophie's Internet-savvy fiancé, Sky, reassuring his bride-to-be of his love. Both scenes together will ensure not a single woman or gay man in the audience isn't hot under the collar, even in air-conditioned theaters this summer.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated PG-13 for some sex-related comments
Running Time: 1 hrs. and 48 mins.