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Posts Tagged ‘bloody awful singing’

Hark! What’s that? Is it ‘a water buffalo’? Is it ‘the QE2 sounding its foghorn as it comes into dock’? Or is it simply ‘a wounded raccoon’?

Well, I think we’ll get back to the source of those alarming noises later. Let’s not beat about the bush here, readers: in an attempt to cling onto my current gainful employment, I have agreed to take on the running of the weekly film club, but rather to my disappointment some of my favourite films of recent years (Monsters, The Guard) have been met with a response varying from indifference to downright hatred. I have thus been obliged to break out some rather more mainstream, populist fare, and to be perfectly honest I am wondering if the extravagant remuneration is worth the pain of watching some of these films. On the other hand, these are the sorts of films I never usually write about so there is perhaps an opportunity here to broaden the blog a bit. In short: Mamma Mia! – if I have to watch the damn thing, then you’re going to have to read about it (actually, you don’t have to).

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Anyway, Phyllida Lloyd’s film came out in 2008 and has made over $600 million at the box office. (Yes, civilisation officially collapsed several years ago, and I’ll bet you didn’t even notice.) It is, as if you needed telling, practically the index case when it comes to the modern phenomenon of the ‘jukebox musical’, where a selection of hits from a well-known artist or group are strung together by a frankly dodgy narrative.

Mamma Mia! is almost entirely set on a remote Greek island, which plays host to a crumbling hotel run by Meryl Streep, with the help of her almost painfully perky daughter Amanda Seyfried. Seyfried is getting married to Dominic Cooper, but as various women intent on chewing the scenery and pratfalling descend on the place for the wedding (most prominently Julie Walters and Christine Baranski), the bride is not happy. She does not yet know the identity of her father, due to her mother’s (ahem) amatorial generosity around the time of her conception. However she has managed to narrow down the potential candidates to Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgard, and Colin Firth, and secretly invited them all as well. Naturally, the scene is set for…

…well, mainly some sentimental and very broad comedy drama, if I’m perfectly honest, punctuated with frequent dips into the back catalogue of the legendary Swedish pop titans. Whatever your opinion of the performances and dialogue in this film, you have to grant the writers some credit for coming up with a plot which crams in quite so many well-known ABBA hits without seeming utterly contrived. There’s definitely some sort of crossword-puzzle solving, Sudoku-completing mentality at work here.

On the other hand, they don’t manage to squeeze in Fernando or Knowing Me Knowing You, let alone The Day Before You Came, which has to count against them, right? Plus there’s a definite cheat involved in only including Waterloo as a non-plot-related encore. In the places of these songs come some rather lesser known tunes like Our Last Summer and When All Is Said and Done, which certainly don’t feature on ABBA Gold (nor indeed ABBA Gold For The Ukulele).

I suppose even these lesser works are solid enough, but the last one in particular is difficult to fairly assess as it is delivered, if that’s the right word, by Pierce Brosnan, who gives one of the more remarkable performances in recent musical cinema. It is of course Brosnan whose vocal stylings have been likened to a raccoon, a buffalo, and so on, but to be fair listening to him yowl, yelp, and moo his way through songs like SOS and I Do, I Do, I Do is strangely entertaining.

This is just part of a peculiar alchemy going on somewhere in the heart of this film. On paper the plot is ludicrous, schmaltzy nonsense, and the general tone of the thing is so frothy and excitable it should really give the discerning viewer a headache. Watching it for the first time I got the rather grim sensation that all of the actors were having much more fun than I was: it’s a bit like arriving late at a party and finding yourself five or six drinks behind everyone else.

And yet, and yet… there are those songs. My God, Benny and Bjorn can write a great tune. Actually, they can write great tunes by the bucketful, all replete with perfectly-honed hooks, surging choruses, and just the right level of grown-up realism and melancholy about them. These songs are like adamantium, not even Pierce Brosnan can seriously damage them. Admittedly, the role-reversal version of Does Your Mother Know emasculates the song, and Streep’s histrionic version of The Winner Takes It All is absurd, but the film’s version of Lay All Your Love On Me captures the song’s mixture of near-spiritual intensity and implicit sexual frenzy perfectly.

All things considered, I would definitely rather listen to two or three ABBA albums back-to-back than watch Mamma Mia! again, because it really does have that air of being an out-of-control middle-aged hen party about it, and Dr K’s description of it as being close to A-list stars performing ‘drunken karaoke’ is, as usual, close to being spot on. But somehow it is impossible to thoroughly object to or even genuinely dislike this film. If nothing it is a testament to the power of… well one thing ABBA’s music isn’t, is cheap. I don’t really think this is the showcase ABBA really deserves, but in its own way the film does an outstanding job of showing just how good their songs are.

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