‘My, my, at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender.’ After victory at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest Abba went on to dominate the charts for much of the 70s, their intensely catchy songs engraving themselves in the public imagination. In 1999, the band’s music was used as the basis for Mamma Mia! the musical. Now this highly popular West End and Broadway hit has had the Chicago treatment and been reincarnated onto the big screen.
Rather than a band biopic, it’s an independent story with Abba’s songs woven into the narrative.Set on a sunny Greek Island, it centres on Sophie Sheridan (relative newcomer Amanda Seyfried), who is about to get married and wants to invite her father to the wedding. The only snag is that her mother Donna (played by Meryl Streep) has never told her who her father was. But after finding her mother’s old diaries and discovering three possible candidates, Sophie promptly invites them all.
As with all musical-to-film conversions, the primary question is: can the leads sing as well as act? Meryl Streep has already sung on screen before in Robert Altman’s last film A Prairie Home Companion, but here she needs to pull off some big numbers and thankfully she does. She doesn’t belt them out but she has a warm voice, full of character. In the only really heartbreaking moment of the film Streep’s Donna sings Slipping through My Fingers as she realizes she is losing her daughter on her wedding day.
Donna is supported by her two best friends Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski). On the strength of this, Walters is in danger of being crowned the queen of British comedy with a near-perfect turn as the awkward but forthright Rosie, who has all the best one-liners. Baranski simmers as the sex-pot Tanya and completely nails Does Your Mother Know.
Walters and Baranski deliver a very funny version of Chiquitita in an attempt to make Donna feel better. In particular the three women, as well as all the women on the island, sing Dancing Queen as a call for female liberation. It is this moment when the music sweeps over you that you can find yourself carried away by it.
The three candidates for Sophie’s father are: Pierce Brosnan, as Sam, Colin Firth as Harry and Stellan Skarsgard as Bill, none of whom are best known for their singing ability. Firth appears the most comfortable and believable as British banker Harry and does the most to make the singing seem effortless. Brosnan and Skarsgard are less successful, not so much because they can’t sing but because they seem less at ease.
With the same team in charge of the film as the stage show Phyllida Lloyd as director, Catherine Johnson as screenwriter and Judy Craymer as producer there was a danger of simply creating a carbon-copy of the stage experience. Can you translate this energetic and funny piece to the screen without it feeling like a series of theatrical set pieces? Not completely. A few times you feel as if you are watching a particularly good music video, however on the whole they have managed to make it feel like it is the characters driving the film and not the music.
The stage production was notable for its sheer energy and pace and much of this has translated to the film. You may not find yourself dancing down the aisles on the way out but you will certainly find yourself singing even if you think you don’t like Abba.