As strange as it may now seem, there was a time, back in the 1970s, when a lot of American tastemakers hated ABBA. The Swedish quartet’s radiant songs and spine-tingling harmonies rubbed rock critics the wrong way, as did their space-disco stage outfits. Now, of course, we can see how wrong those joyless trolls were. ABBA’s music was a natural progression from the wall-of-sound productions of Phil Spector and the melodious intricacy of the best Beatles tracks. It was pop music of a very high order, and it may be even more popular now than it was back in the group’s heyday, from about 1972 to 1982.
In 1999, a jukebox musical called “Mamma Mia!” premiered, cobbled together around 23 of ABBA’s most ravishing tunes. It opened in London and eventually metastasized into a world-conquering phenomenon, grossing about $2 billion to date. Now it’s been turned into a movie, with mixed but nevertheless lovable results. The show’s thin plot — a young girl invites three men, one of whom might be her father, to her wedding on the beautiful Greek island where she lives with her innkeeper mom — is still thin; but it has more heart now, thanks mainly to Amanda Seyfried (“Mean Girls”), who plays the girl; Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård, who play the men; and, most of all, fearless Meryl Streep, who throws herself into the proceedings with complete abandon, and in a show-stopping, cliff-top rendition of “The Winner Takes It All,” shows off some most impressive pipes.
Brosnan, on the other hand, can’t really sing — at all — and you feel a small shudder whenever he breaks into his modest croak. But he gives one of the movie’s warmest performances, and he’s game, and you root for him. More problematically, three of the stage show’s songs have been removed for the movie — including the resounding hit “Knowing Me, Knowing You.” This is really too bad; but a lot of great music remains, and almost all of it induces a ridiculously irresistible urge to hum along. The British director, Phyllida Lloyd, and writer, Catherine Johnson, who created the original show, have opened it up for the film. Now the story is bathed in glorious Mediterranean light, and the chorus of happy islanders cavorts through picturesque villages and up onto the bluffs overlooking the sparkling sea. The movie is an eyeful from beginning to end.
Brosnan, Firth and Skarsgård have been invited to the wedding because young Sophie (Seyfried) has learned that each of them had a tumble with her free-spirit mom, Donna (Streep), back in the hippie days (here updated, a bit awkwardly, to around 1987). Which of them is her dad? Which one’s actually gay? Will Brosnan, paired with Streep, be able to pull off the vocally taxing “SOS”? (Yes, actually — a miracle.)
“Mamma Mia!” is a feel-good musical experience, plain and simple. The actors display a buoyant commitment to the material (Firth has seldom been this deadpan-funny), and the songs, of course, remain undeniable wonders. Will the movie make a mint? Almost certainly. Is it worth your 10 bucks? Hey — what’s the price of pure happiness these days?
Check out everything we’ve got on “Mamma Mia!”
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Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s review of “The Dark Knight,” also new in theaters this week.