I've been cheated by films since I don't know whe-e-n,

Ta-da-da-da-da; ta-da-da-da-da.

This one's got one good point: it must come to an end.

Ta-da-da-da-da; ta-da-da-da-da.

Look at me now! Will I ever learn?

I don't know who ... thought Pierce Brosnan should sing in it.

How on earth could it not... be... shit?

One more smirk, and then I knew it would bomb,

One more scene and I'd a great need to vom',

Oh-woah...

Mamma Mia! There they go again. Bringing us a movie based, with chilling calculation, on a hit stage show franchise, this one being laboriously structured around the songs of the once mocked, then ironised and now adored 70s pop legends Abba. The most transcendent type of film, they say, leaves a subliminal image imprinted on your mental retina, an image which you only see fully on leaving the cinema. After Michael Haneke's Hidden, we asked ourselves: "So what did happen outside the school gates?" Ten minutes after this film, I suddenly gasped: "Ohmigod, was Colin Firth's character supposed to be gay?" Of this, more in a moment.

Struldbruggs among you will remember the 1994 film Muriel's Wedding, with Toni Collette as the big, goofy woman who is obsessed with Abba and dreams about a white wedding. (That ecstatic-bride logo for the Mamma Mia! stage show, on display outside theatres from Antwerp to Las Vegas, owes a great deal to the Muriel's Wedding poster.) Muriel's Wedding was however conceived during the affectionate-irony phase of Abba's reputation, when it was entirely appropriate that a nerd should be obsessed by the band, but that the nerd should be gloriously empowered and transformed by the sheer zinging power of Abba's tunes.

Mamma Mia! The Movie is very different. Everything has been squeaky-cleaned up. It too has a feelgood wedding motif - but there is no irony, no heartache, certainly no paralysing illness, no dramatic plausibility, and weirdly, no hint that the characters know whose songs they are singing; there is no sense of perspective on the music. In Mamma Mia! Abba is everywhere and nowhere. This is Planet Abba or Abbaworld. The characters are forever dancing and smiling and bursting into Abba songs like Stepford cyborgs when you flip the secret panel behind their heads and press the Life-Affirming Behaviour button. An Abba instrumental is even used when the bride walks up the aisle, instead of Handel. And nobody ever says: "Oh for Gawd's sake, just for a change, can we sing something by the Carpenters?"

The story is ... urh. No film has ever had a more irrelevant story. Is it, you ask, a musical account of the true story of how Abba singer Anni-Frid Lyngstad was born in 1945 as a result of a Nazi plan to boost the Aryan gene pool by mating German soldiers with Norwegian mothers? No. The film and stage show are very loosely based on a 1968 Gina Lollobrigida movie called Buona Sera, Mrs Campbell. Meryl Streep plays Donna, a former hippie and free spirit who runs a B&B on a horrendous Shirley-Valentine-style Greek island. Her 20-year-old daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfield) is about to get married. Donna has invited her best buddies Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski) to the event. But how about Sophie's long-lost father, the guy who had his way with Donna and scarpered all those years ago? Sophie has life-affirmingly discovered the existence of three of her multi-shagging mum's old lovers who may have supplied the DNA at the time. Life-affirmingly, she invites them all to her wedding without telling her mother: Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Bill (Stellan Skarsgård) and Harry (Colin Firth). All three guys show up with cute old photos of them in hippy-ish or punky garb. Bill even waffles about his love for Donna having taken place in the era of peace and love. Huh? Assuming the film is set roughly in the present day, and Sophie is 20, then their love was in the era of Westland and privatising British Gas.

Anyway, all three guys are still plausibly dishy. But there is something odd about Colin Firth. Of the three, his paternity claim appears to be the weakest; he talks about having no children, only a pair of dogs, and in the final group-dance-hug scene, appears to cop off with someone of the same genital group. Could it be that Colin's enthusiasm for womankind is now limited to his mamma-mia? Is this the movie attempting, in its simperingly inclusive way, to acknowledge the band's gay fanbase? Either way, it's a coy sort of outing which leaves the character deeper in the closet than ever.

Mamma Mia! ties itself in knots trying to shoehorn in every single famous number, and each time, the beginning of an Abba song triggered in me a Pavlovian stab of pleasure, cancelled after a millionth of a second by a backwash of rage that this soulless panto has done nothing to earn or even understand the good feeling.

Some songs are easier to incorporate than others. Waterloo is saved for the closing credits, perhaps because screenwriter Catherine Johnson didn't grasp its metaphorical quality, and that she would not in fact need a vast Napoleonic army to troop across the island. But there is one very famous Abba number which is entirely omitted. That is a crying shame. I have an idea for the way in which it could yet be included, should an extra scene be needed for the DVD. There's a six-year-old boy on the island called Fernando, and caring Meryl Streep suspects that poor little Fernando could be hearing-impaired. She sits the little lad down, takes out a set of drums and bangs them close to his ears; with tears pouring down her cheeks, she sings to him a single, heart-rending question ...

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Film of the week: Mamma Mia!

Philip French: That cheesy Abba musical has now become an even cheesier film. By the end, though, you may find yourself bludgeoned into submission...

Philip French

13, Jul, 2008 @8:44 AM

Article image
Mamma Mia is UK's highest grossing film

Phyllida Lloyd's film adaptation of the West End musical surpasses decade-long record set by James Cameron's Titanic

Ben Child and agencies

17, Dec, 2008 @12:41 PM

Article image
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again review – feta fever dream sequel is weirdly irresistible
I was not among those begging for a follow-up to the wildly successful 2008 Abba musical. But after just a few scenes, all I could say was: Gimme, Gimme, Gimme

Peter Bradshaw

17, Jul, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
Mamma Mia 2 makers hope to repeat box office success
My my, how can fans resist Cher singing Fernando and playing Meryl Streep’s mum?

Vanessa Thorpe Arts and media correspondent

14, Jul, 2018 @4:44 PM

Article image
Here We Go Again: how critics learned to stop worrying and love Mamma Mia!
The sequel to the Abba musical is earning significantly better reviews than the maligned original. Is it actually a better film – or a sign of shifting cultural values?

Laura Snapes

20, Jul, 2018 @9:20 AM

Article image
Mamma Mia! 2: the songs won't remain the same

The first Mamma Mia! film used up all of Abba's best tunes. Stuart Heritage imagines what the proposed sequel would have to resort to ...

Stuart Heritage

26, Oct, 2009 @12:57 PM

Film Weekly podcast: Meeting Mamma Mia!'s mother
This week I talk to Phyllida Lloyd, director of both stage and film versions of the Abba musical

Jason Solomons

10, Jul, 2008 @9:46 AM

In pictures: Mamma Mia! world premiere
July 1 2008: World premiere of Mamma Mia! at the Odeon Leicester Square in London. The film is a musical based on the legendary Swedish band Abba's songs

01, Jul, 2008 @2:18 PM

DVD of the week: Mamma Mia!

Couldn't escape if I wanted to... says Mark Kermode

Mark Kermode

16, Nov, 2008 @12:01 AM

Mamma Mia!: watchalong live

Liveblog: Stuart Heritage watches the whole of Phyllida Lloyd's Abba shock-a, joined by readers

Stuart Heritage

30, Aug, 2013 @6:27 PM