July 16, 2008, Universal 108 minutes
I was struck by a comment from the Irish-American author, J.P. Donleavy who just died at age 91 that “Writing is turning one’s worst moments into money.” My problem is that I can't seem to do that. I prefer my writing to take me away from my worst moments, not quarry them for mental therapy or literary revenge--let alone money. Sure, I'd love to quantify my musings into currency (any takers?) but really I'm compelled more by love to note this sentimental education, while I still have the memory to do so. For lately it seems to be slipping. At least for latter day events--fewer of which seem important, or hold any fissure of impact or excitement. And that is as good a place as any to start with Mamma Mia! As with more than a few latter day Bway musicals--and biggest hits--here's another one I couldn't get much interested in.
If Zorba's Greeks were depressing to Ethan Mordden for pretending to be life-affirming while embracing an amoral nihilism, Mamma Mia! could be seen as a corrective on steroids. Every moment with these "Greeks" bursts with life-affirming intentions. Yet all of these main characters are anything but Greek. Only the chorus--a literal Greek Chorus natch-- lends any native flavor beyond the scenery, which is that added element Bway couldn't supply to make this jukebox musical a Hlwd blockbuster. It was no slouch on Bway either, running over 5,000 performances over 14 years. The original West End production first starting partying like it was 1999. It was. And from there the show moved across the planet like a virus, such was the pop contagion that was a Swedish band called ABBA--a moniker formed of the first name initials of its quartet (they could as easily have been BABA.); two married couples, no less, inevitably headed for divorce. Winners of the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest the group captured numerous foreign markets, but not quite so rapidly in America. At that time my take on their glam-pop sound was the definition of Eurotrash, as dismissable as disco; and equally surprising in its durability, which is what Mamma Mia! not simply proves, but fairly flaunts. A Greatest Hits album laid on an innocuous past-catches-up-with-present story, set in a Greek inn. Purists may scoff but who can argue its commercial success?
Mamma Mia! was the brain-child of British producer, Judy Craymer, whose idea of setting ABBA's pop hits to a narrative story was initially met with skepticism by its own authors, Benny Andersson & Bjorn Ulvaeus. Nonetheless British playwright Catherine Johnson was engaged, and a story was laid out--one that drew comparisons with a '68 Melvin Frank Hlwd comedy, Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell. (Three Americans return to an Italian village where their one-time wartime romance--with Lollabrigida--yielded a child. But whose?) MM inverts this so that none of its male trio are aware of a child--who is the one inviting them back to determine her parentage. In time Andersson & Ulvaeus succumbed to the show's creation--tho no new material was offered. By then the duo had embarked on their own forays into legit theater with Chess, and a Swedish language epic, Kristina. Putting it all together was stage director Phyllida Lloyd--completing the triumvirate of 40s Brit birds (all born within weeks of each other), making this a rare femme-centric production from the top down. A prolific stage director, Phyllida wasn't an obvious choice for film director, Still, if Julie Taymor could prove her talents translated to film, why not Lloyd? And as it happens, she does a surprisingly fluid and cinematic job--especially considering how static the stage show had to be. The movie soaks in the Greek Isle milieu, much as The Sound of Music gave us Salzburg as porn. I could see similarites between the two pics in their pride of place and contagiously crossover songs--qualities which helped make each the highest grossing movie musical of their time.
Whether by coincidence or intention a Greek cinema-tographer was hired; and the camerawork of Haris Zambarloukos is frequently striking. In collaboration with Lloyd they find endless invention in filming and editing many a number, whether on location or on the elaborate villa studio sets at Pinewood in England; so beautifully lit as to convince a match with the real thing. Lloyd stages the music as confidently as Vincente Minnelli or Bob Fosse. A good many of the songs become entire story-lines in montage. One of the best is "Money, Money, Money" which segues from Meryl's domestic woes to a fantasized life upon a yacht; brilliantly slashing back to reality simply by tearing thru fabric. Lloyd also knows how to end songs; often abruptly, cleanly. Her rhythms don't jar, they click, it's not just easy, but pleasant to flow along. She doesn't belabor them either, sometimes it's just 16 bars and out--and it's enuf. Lloyd also knows the rules of musical comedy, which means at any moment a chorus may pop out of the kitchen, or rise up from the surf, or crawl up a shingled roof. These are the locals --the real Greek chorus; and there's just enuf of their interjections to make you want more.
Is there anything Meryl Streep can't do? I'm convinced she could transform herself into Hattie McDaniel, should she so desire. Just as Julie Andrews was that unquantifiable X-tra that sold The Sound of Music; Streep's contribution here is incalculable. Aside from making each moment on screen count for something, who knew she could sing? Well, some of us did--she had her climatic moment in Postcards from the Edge, and there was some pseudo-musical comedy in Death Becomes Her, but she tears into the songs here, convincing you she really was head of pop group back in the day. She has quite a few numbers as well, and they range in moods and styles. Her vanity & indulgence in "Money, Money, Money" is hilarious.; she's a pied piper thru "Dancing Queen," a heart-sick belter in "SOS"; a sentimental mother lamenting with "Slipping Thru My Fingers"--and managing to keep it maudlin-free. And then topping it all with her eleven o'clock number: "Winner Takes it All" making it an entire master class of acting. She isn't just Donna Sheridan, she's Medea reading Jason the riot act. She sells the hell out of it--and her vocal stands up to any classic Bway turn.
Of her former band-mates (The Dynamos), I find Christine Baranski the more believable and enjoyable to watch. She gets her own production number with "Does Your Mother Know?" Julie Walters seems a bit too frumpy, and I find myself constantly wishing it were Tracey Ullman, who would have brought a bit more sparkle to the part (as well as recalling the great chemistry she had with Streep in Plenty.) The 3 potential fathers are a former James Bond, Pierce Bronson; Bridget Jones's crush, Colin Firth; and Stellan Skarsgard, a Swede (changed from the play's Australian.) Perhaps these are a middle-aged woman's fantasy trio--they're not mine. In truth none of their characters are interesting, even with Firth "coming out" by the end, flirting with a hirsute Greek (which is redundant I suppose). The script doesn't help them out by making the guys too slow on the uptick--wouldn't Sophie's age immediately suggest their potential parentage?--particularly paired with an invitation to her wedding? Duh.
But Amanda Seyfried scans well against Meryl, her singing as laudable and their familial resemblance uncanny. Her boy-toy groom-to-be, Dominic Cooper provides eye candy with his half-naked, sun-tanned bod. And a deep-black British kickboxer with electro-shock hair and a killer smile, Philip Michael, pops up from time to time as a strangely ardent suitor of Christine Baranski. Not a bad group of people to spend a couple of hours with.
Universal released the film in July, boosting it to a global take over $600 million, the 5th highest grossing film of 2008 (in which it must be noted the rest of the top ten were either superhero, animated or action flicks.) Here was a real throwback, a musical! And yet despite my respect & love for Andersson & Ulvaeus' Chess, a score stiched from ABBA pop hits had no purchase on my interest, which kept me from seeing the movie until December. With mild surprise, I liked it more than expected, but apparently not enuf to see it again until now. Nor did it awaken any new desire to see the show on stage--where it remained lodged in the Winter Garden for another seven years after the film's release!
That summer I returned to NY for the first time in 3 years, and found to my dismay an unfamiliar antagonist: oppressive humidity--which consequently impacted my heavily scheduled week of theatregoing far too much. 9 shows in 8 days: Young Frankenstein, The Country Girl, Mary Poppins, August: Osage County, Gypsy (with Patti Lupone), Spring Awakening--none of which resonated like they promised. Hairspray (then in its last year; with Bruce Villanch) proved the single true highlight--even tho I arrived late, on the run the final 12 blocks, hyper-ventilating and sweating into the Siberian air-conditioning. I was sure I was having a heart attack the
next night, thru In the Heights--a false alarm that didn't fully abate thru my final hoped-for enchanted evening: Bartlett Sher's South Pacific--one supposedly for the ages, but not, alas, for me in my frazzled state. Had it come to this? Was I over New York? Had I become my father?
More enjoyable trips were made to LA and Vegas. Larry & I took a train to San Diego to see the Bway-hopeful adaptation of MGM's Bandwagon musical (retitled Dancing in the Dark) which (deservedly) went no further. 9 to 5 trying out at the Ahmanson did get to Bway--another unecessary movie-turned-musical, with an uninspired score. Closer to home, I trekked to Mt. View to see a well-done Grey Gardens, albeit lacking Christine Ebersole's indelible mark; and in SF: The Drowsy Chaperone on national tour--cute, but thin. And tho I no longer frequented the resurrections at 42nd St. Moon, curiosity
compelled me to see Rick Besoyan's Bway flop following Little Mary Sunshine: The Student Gypsy. And also their postage-stamp version of Coco--as I had first suggested this to Andrea Marcovicci when she came to do On a Clear Day. I was right; she was perfect for the role and sang it miles above Katharine Hepburn--tho without much of a production the show is a wash.
As I noted at the time, 2008 was a mixture of hope & suffocation--an anxious year. A tense constipated sense of world affairs at the collapse of the Bush term reflected my own creative stassis at the time. For once I wasn't capable of anything but watching the fate of the world unfold. With Greg still healing (at great expense), and Mother still hanging on (ever more erratic) was it any wonder I started having panic attacks, which Kaiser readily medicated. Effective as these drugs were I didn't particularly enjoy them enuf to develop an addiction. But one doesn't need new addictions with the cable universe. TV was well enuf to fill any void; particularly when the quality was on the epic level of Mad Men or Pushing Daisies--among dozens of others. A few theatrical films made lasting impact: Wes Anderson's Darjeeling Limited and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood were the comedy & drama of the year, but the musical was Julie Taymor's Across the Universe. Another jukebox tuner (using the Beatles catalog) the film, alas, is egregiously underrated--one of the best original musicals in many years. One more must be mentioned for merely one scene: the last. After a series of adventures getting to the sea, Mr. Bean's Holiday ends with Bean finding a open door, and at last, sight of the Riviera. Filming with his camera, Bean steps out onto a roof, and Magoo-like descends an unlikely but magical staircase that forms from street traffic and other objects placed in his path, carrying him down to the beach; scored to Charles Trenet's "La Mer." (The French pop tune that became "Beyond the Sea" in America) By the time the film's cast is lipsynching to the full-bodied chorus I am happily brought to tears. (It's easily found on Youtube). Rahadlakum like this is precious gold. It fills me with hope.
There was an enormous infusion of hope that November when after a closely watched year, the Man I backed (who had me at hello) made the most remarkable, unprecedented ascent to the presidency. Not since JFK had there been such a sense of new energy, style and common sense, and I had a new hero: Obama. But the pendulum swings, and now that it's swung to the point of idiocy; nuclear trash-talking, public snipers and a parade of natural catastrophes (hurricanes in Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico; fires in California), the state of the world is very depressing. Over this time I watched Mamma Mia! five times; it's songs rattled my brain nonstop for weeks (they are the fiercest earworms). In the end, for me the surprise of Mamma Mia! was that its value is essential and clear. Something silly, tuneful and lovely to look at becomes a comforting balm in hard times. Apparently that isn't lost upon the film's creatives: an original film sequel is now on the way: Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again.
Up next: Nine