Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
Let’s take it as fact that ABBA is one of the greatest, most infectious musical groups ever assembled, a brilliant ray of Scandinavian sunshine pop that thumps its disco beats into one’s heart. Let’s also admit that “jukebox musicals” take even more suspension of disbelief than straight-ahead musicals, slamming song after song from disparate contexts into some semblance of a narrative. If the first film based on the Mamma Mia! stage show was faulty but somewhat fun, the question now is whether we really need to go again.
To its credit, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again at least ups the cinematic stakes, using the tools of moviemaking, especially cross-cutting and quick flashback, to elevate the production into something that couldn’t be fully accomplished on stage. The scope of the film still feels inordinately constrained, however, with scene after scene in claustrophobic rooms that give only a hint of the sweeping vistas in which the Greek-set story takes place.
The parallel storylines follow Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), who is following the dreams of her late mother Donna (Meryl Streep) in building up her seaside hotel, while we meet a younger version of Donna (Lily James) who’s just starting off on her journey of discovery. This makes for a kind of prequel/sequel hybrid that fleshes out the backstory of the first film while also pushing things forward, which allows some of the songs from the earlier movie to be repeated in different contexts. The dynamic between Sophie’s surrogate mothers (Julie Walters and Christine Baransky) are echoed by the friendship the younger versions (Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies) share with Donna. Similarly, we encounter the youthful versions of the father triptych originally played by Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård in the form of Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner and Josh Dylan, each a person that Donna has a dalliance with.
Andy Garcia and Cher also make appearances, as well as a returning Dominic Cooper in the form of Sophie’s husband, Sky. Cher’s splashy return will garner the most attention. With a platinum wig and surreal, surgically ageless visage, she still makes quite a statement, her voice fittingly over-the-top and in good form for her solo numbers. This myriad of characters from different timelines all come together as both a celebration of past and a reflection of the present, a kind of wild ride through time and song.
Of course, it’s all a bit trite and silly, and in terms of plot there’s really not much here save for the setup. Still, settling in and letting it play out as a kind of romp is beneficial, especially thanks to the performances of the newest cast members. James in particular is quite sensational. Her free spirited air never comes across as cloying and her musical chops seem more than up for the job. The flashback elements entertain the most, even if they’re often the most over-the-top of the staging by director Ol Parker and his team. Robert Yeoman’s photography is glossy as expected, even if I wanted him to slip in some of the more sumptuous style he often provides for Wes Anderson.
The song selection is pretty decent, incorporating some lesser numbers that do the storyline justice. The mix is of course set to prioritize the coherence of lyrical understanding, but beneath that is still that ABBA drive, thanks in part to Benny Andersson heading the team of studio musicians in London and Stockholm.
While the narrative is hardly the stuff of legend (and pretty much spoiled completely by the film’s trailer), there’s still enough charm from both James and Seyfried to make for a engaging, entertaining film. I can’t help but think that somehow a truly spectacular movie could be wrought from ABBA’s songs, one far more harrowing and frankly Scandanavian in both its beauty and bleakness. This is not that project, but the fact that the filmmakers somehow cobbled enough up to provide a serviceable sequel will be more than enough for fans.
I’ll always cherish the sublime Muriel’s Wedding for recontextualizing ABBA in a way both moving and magical, so I never needed much from the Mamma Mia! mayhem. However, for those who just want to revel in some mid-summer romance and dream of far off escapes while being provided with daft dance sequences, the sequel offers plenty to enjoy. It’s frivolous stuff, but it’s likely exactly what’s called for, and on those terms the return is welcome.