Saturday, July 19, 2008

Meryl Streep can do no wrong. I love her.

What started out as a hastily thrown together filler show for an unexpectedly vacated West End theatre is now a long running global phenomenon. Originally expected to last three months, next year sees the London run celebrate its tenth birthday and the Broadway production is closing in fast on its 3000th performance. Those are the two tentpole productions of this show, but there are countless other regional and international productions running, as well as touring casts. So is there anyone left who hasn't seen this show?

In case there is, there now comes the movie, something that has become increasingly inevitable with each successful movie musical adaptation of recent years. As someone who spent five years working on the London production of Mamma Mia!, by the time I left, I was well and truly done with ABBA and with the show. At that point I thought if I never heard "Dancing Queen" again, I'd be a happy man. But slowly, oh so slowly, the movie began to intrigue me. One thing that got me interested was the pitch perfect casting of Donna's best friends (and back up band), Tanya and Rosie. Julie Walters and Christine Baranski were born to play those roles. And on a more shallow level, Dominic Cooper as Sky, Sophie's betrothed? Not only is he easy on the eye, but I've loved him since Mother Clap's Molly House, which I just discovered was his first role out of drama school. Once you've seen someone being buggered over a sofa, I like to think there's a connection there.

But what really suckered me into this was the casting of Meryl Streep as Donna Sheridan. I would watch her in anything and while she's sung in films every now and again, giving us all a glimpse of her vocal possibilities, here she is carrying her first screen musical proper and the prospect of that is oddly thrilling. So I was in. There was every chance I'd have some kind of allergic reaction in the opening credits and have to leave, but I was willing to give the film a try.

I think everyone knows the plot by now. It's sort of Buona Sera, Mrs Campbell crossed with Lace as 20 year old Sophie, having never known who her father is, finds her mother's diary and discovers there are three possibilities. So she invites them all to her wedding. Only she hasn't told them who she is nor has she told her mother what she's done. So the stage is set for misunderstandings, arguments, break ups, make ups and of course ABBA songs.

The movie is streamlined from the show's 140 minute running time (admittedly including intermission), mainly by removing songs. "Thank You For The Music", "The Name Of The Game, "Under Attack", "One Of Us" and "Knowing Me, Knowing You" have all been excised. "Our Last Summer" has been moved up to much earlier and is now shared among all three possible dads (a respectable Colin Firth, an ok Stellan Skarsgaard and a completely tone deaf but game Pierce Brosnan) and Sophie (a lovely Amanda Seyfried) rather than between Harry (Firth) and Donna. Bizarrely, "When All Is Said And Done" has been shoehorned in and given to Pierce Brosnan to sing at the end, after he's demonstrated at least twice that he fundamentally can't. As changes go, that's pretty much it. Some numbers are opened out (most notably "Dancing Queen") but otherwise this is the stage show with beautiful locations (and some horribly obvious bluescreen backdrops) and a fabulous cast.

And that is where it all starts to go a bit wrong. 90% of me enjoyed the camp hilarity and what have you, 10% of me was thinking "dear sweet Jesus, what the FUCK were you THINKING?". It's been adapted, directed and choreographed by the same writer, director and choreographer that have helmed every single production since its inception. And while you have to admire the commitment and the continuity, I wonder whether all three of them were too close to it to see what really needed to be done to successfully put the show on film. Anthony Van Laast's choreography is plain godawful (the review in Entertainment Weekly said it best "It's tempting to say that Mamma Mia! has the worst choreography of any big-screen musical in history, though that would imply that what happens in the film IS choreography") but there isn't that much of it now (though what there is, especially in "Dancing Queen" is jaw droppingly, magnificently shit). The real problem comes from the direction. Phyllida Lloyd has never directed anything for television or film before, she's a stage director through and through. And it shows. The direction is uneven, uncertain and all over the place. "Money Money Money" is a prime example of that, with fantasy sequences artlessly shoved in and it is also one of the many many many numbers that switches pointlessly from diegetic to non-diegetic singing within the number. Why? Also the lack of imagination was occasionally annoying especially when all it did was demonstrate that something which works well on stage does not do so on film, no matter how vibrantly you edit it ("Voulez Vous"). And while the megamix finale is one of the show's strongest points, it's so shabbily thrown in for the credits that it made me wince more than it made me smile.

Luckily for Lloyd, Meryl Streep is such an instinctive actress that a green director can't harm her performance. She's radiant and glorious in the role, she's funny, she's charming and when she turns on the emotion it really grips you by the throat. Her reaction when Sophie asks her to give her away at her wedding is breathtaking. And then of course there's her singing. While she carries the more upbeat numbers with aplomb (anyone who can actually give me chills singing "Super Trouper" is undeniably a gifted singer), it's in the later power ballads that she really comes into her own and the big finish is her "Winner Takes It All" which has never been sung better. It is the song by which all Donnas tend to be judged and she really knocks it out of the park. I may have welled up with emotion during it (and during "Slipping Through My Fingers") but there may have just been something in my eye. Shut up.

Ultimately, the enjoyment outweighed the disappointment and I was left with a smile on my face and the thought that I wouldn't mind seeing the show again. And you can't say fairer than that.


Jerby said...

Sadly, I did not enjoy Mamma Mia as much as you. I agree with your criticisms.

joe s said...

I enjoyed it very much, especially the Voulez Vous scene. I loved the steps they were dancing to - they looked like a lot of fun. I'd like to learn those steps and get a group of friends together to dance it.