Vol. LXIII, No. 24
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
It’s a requirement of popular culture that you strike an ironic distance. This doesn’t. It’s a film about women and their whole experience being hopeful and youthful and older and suffering the regrets that you have over a long life. It’s visceral and I love that.
Meryl Streep will turn 60 next Monday. This might not sound like big news unless, like me, you’ve just seen her heroic, all-out, no-holds-barred performance in the ABBA movie Mamma Mia! The reviews have been mixed, to put it mildly. Writing in the New York Times, A.O. Scott calls it “the worst performance of her career” and chides her for filling “every moment with antic, purposeless energy, as if she were hogging the spotlight in an eighth-grade musical.”
Streep’s feelings about the film run much deeper than that, as is evident in her response to questions from The Guardian’s Stuart Jeffries in the July 2008 interview quoted above. Asked “Isn’t it beneath you?” she replies that she wants “to do things that are valuable to introduce into the culture,” and that “this film is a valuable thing.” She goes on to explain what happened when she first saw the stage version on Broadway the month after 9/11 when everyone was “really dimmed spiritually.” The heavy aftermath had been particularly hard on some children she took to see a matinee performance: “They walked in and they sat there with their heads in their hands. Dimmed is the word — they were sad all the time, you know? The first part was really wordy, and then ‘Dancing Queen’ started up. And for the rest of the show they were dancing on their chairs and they were so, so happy. We all went out of the theatre floating on the air. I thought, ‘What a gift to New York right now.’”
The thank-you letter she sent to the cast eventually came to the attention of producer Judy Craymer and director Phyllida Lloyd. When Craymer saw her as Mother Courage in Tony Kushner’s 2006 Central Park production of Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, she was sure that Streep “was destined” to play the lead role of Donna Sheridan in Mamma Mia!
Irony Vs. Energy
The popular culture’s “ironic distance” requirement is all too evident in the innumerable negative reviews of the film version of Mamma Mia! The sneering begins with references to the exclamation point in the title (so gauche, so chick-flick!). Even that innocuous little indicator of enthusiasm is seen as a threat to aesthetic decorum.
Okay, I’ll admit that the prospect of watching America’s most accomplished actress gamely singing ABBA songs is among the things that put me off seeing the movie and made me reluctant to rent the DVD. As far as that goes, Mamma Mia! has attracted notices foul enough to scare anyone away; it’s “exhilarating and excruciating,” “like a party where everyone is so desperate to have a good time that it makes you miserable.” Besides accusing it of being “a ferocious onslaught of obligatory good cheer,” The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane found the proceedings so embarrassing that he spent “half the film” staring down at his “clenched fists and curled toes.” And who else but the diabolically funny Lane, the most eloquent ironist on the scene, could spin an analogy that matches a relentlessly upbeat, free-spirited film set on a Greek island with “the black art of rendition” wherein “ordinary citizens, often unaware of their own guilt, are spirited off to a secure environment in Eastern Europe, there to be forced into a humiliating and often painful confession of sins past”?
The Pop Sublime
If you’ve been exposed to ABBA’s music for decades — if, say, you used to rock your child to sleep to “Does Your Mother Know?” and “Angel Eyes” — you learn to hold your tongue in the presence of certain normally open-minded people who will roll their eyes and make rude noises at the mere mention of ABBA. Why invite their scorn by trying to describe how it feels when Björn, Benny, Agnetha, Anni-Frid, and their musical accomplices shanghai you with an exotic riff and sail off into the Pop Sublime with you dancing on their wings? Why bore the naysayers with accounts of cleaning up the dinner dishes after a stressful day while “Voulez-Vous” is playing at window-rattling volume, still as fresh and fiery as ever after countless listenings? Can you really expect an unsympathetic audience to care that you were so carried away by the adventure played out in the music — that opening tempest of sheer swirling excitement — that for years you heard the words “take it now or leave” and “masters of the scene” as “pagan galleries” and “masters of the sea,” a case of mistaken identity that turned a song about a pick-up in a bar into a Viking conquest of epic proportions?
Mamma Mia!’s plot, such as it is, owes something to the 1968 Gina Lollobrigida film, Buona Sera Mrs. Campbell, in which three U.S. servicemen have a reunion in an Italian village 20 years after the war, each of them having paid for the upbringing of a daughter Lollobrigida has told them is theirs. Except that Mamma Mia! takes place on a Greek island where the daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), is about to be married and the mother, Donna (Meryl Streep), has long ago lost touch with the three former lovers (Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgård, and Colin Firth). Sophie has invited them to the wedding in the hope of discovering who her real father is so he can walk her down the aisle. Also coming to the wedding are the two old pals (Julie Waters and Christine Baranski) who once played in Donna’s band, Donna and the Dynamos. The give and take between this threesome evokes the nutty ambience of Jennifer Saunders’s incomparable Ab Fab, and when they take the stage at the bride’s pre-nuptial blast singing “Super Trouper” in full Glam Rock regalia, it’s like a Patsy and Edina fantasy come to life.
As for negatives, Sophie and her groom (Dominic Cooper) may remind you at times of the ingenue love interest in a Marx Brothers movie, and though Seyfried is probably the best singer in the film, she’s also its most strenuously overstated actor; it’s too bad she and Cooper are responsible for one of ABBA’s absolute masterpieces, “Lay All Your Love On Me,” with its soaring, breathless-on-a-precipice crescendoes and ecstatic diminuendoes.
Whatever their verdict on the film, most reviewers were in agreement about Pierce Brosnan’s rendition of “S.O.S.,” which inspired comparisons to a water buffalo, a “wounded raccoon,” a “donkey braying,” and someone undergoing a prostate exam. As painful as it was to see an unskilled singer struggle with so thankless a task, Brosnan’s lumbering agony is almost perversely refreshing, it’s so flamboyantly unprofessional. While ABBA’s complexly arranged and engineered recordings are closer to rocket science than spontaneity, the mission of the music is to set people singing and dancing, never mind how talented or untalented they may be. The idea is to sing along, let your hair down, have fun, and break through routine everyday constraints. Anthony Lane sees this as a negative, dismissing the idea of audiences tolerating and even enjoying imperfect singing and dancing because “it reminds them of themselves having a good time.”
But when he refers to the “good time” being shared by audience and performer, Lane’s actually recognizing something akin to the vicarious enjoyment that has been bonding moviegoers and movie musicals from the moment Al Jolson sang “Mammy” in The Jazz Singer. Songs like “Mamma Mia” or “Dancing Queen,” or “Gimme Gimme Gimme” or “Does Your Mother Know” create a surfeit of sheer exhilaration; the music can’t be contained: it has to be released, given play, set loose. You need more than some people dancing; you need crowds, legions, a spectacle. The visual excitement of all that liberated human energy makes the music swell inside you until you laugh out loud with the joy of it. And, as often as not, you sing along. In fact, one of the bonus features of the DVD is a Sing-Along version with on-screen lyrics for 27 numbers. A Special Edition 2-disc DVD is also available.
In England, Mamma Mia! is the highest grossing film and fastest-selling DVD ever, in addition to being the highest grossing musical film in the world, in history, period. 2009 also marks the 35th anniversary of ABBA’s breakthrough, the year “Waterloo” won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest. And, of course, 2009 is a landmark year for New Jersey native Meryl Streep, who is the heart and soul of Mamma Mia! whether she’s living every word of “The Winner Takes It All,” or feeling every word of “Slipping Through My Fingers,” or laughing or crying or tearing her hair, leaping about, doing splits. And, yes, this Monday she’ll celebrate her 60th birthday.
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