Repeating Family History with the Music of ABBA through “MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN”

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In 1999, British playwright Catherine Johnson premiered in London a musical based on the songs of celebrated Swedish pop quartet ABBA. Entitled “Mamma Mia!” the musical concerns a soon-to-marry young woman who invites three past lovers of her unwed mother to her wedding, hoping to discover which of them is her father, all set in an idyllic Greek island in the Aegean Sea. In 2008 that musical was given the box-office treatment with a star-studded cast of cinema legends and relatively fresh faces. Fan reception was so-so due to the fact that some of the cast’s singing prowess left much to be desired in a musical. Ten years after that, almost everybody involved has piled back in for a sequel and surprisingly, going at it again makes for a better cinematic experience than the first.

The rather appropriately titled “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” is Universal Picture’s attempt to return to the fanciful musical world of Kolaikiri island in Greece to see if there are more stories that can be told of Sophie and her interesting family. According to Catherine Johnson and her fellow writers for this film, Richard Curtis and new director Ol Parker, there is and more.

“Here We Go Again” starts at the island villa of Donna Sheridan and her married daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), several years after the events of the first “Mamma Mia!” Sophie has completely refurbished the compound in preparation for reopening as a resort hotel, though her efforts are tinged with melancholy due to the passing of her mamma Donna (Meryl Streep) a year prior.

While one of her three dads (and official stepdad after he and Donna married) Sam (Pierce Brosnan) is on hand for the upcoming occasion, Sophie is put down by the fact that the others, Harry (Colin Firth) and Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), are busy with commitments elsewhere. Things worsen when she learns her husband Sky (Dominic Cooper), studying hotel management in New York, has been offered a job there and is considering accepting it rather than return to help Sophie with the villa.

In this time of impending crisis Sophie gains the welcome companionship of her mamma’s old Dynamos band-mates, Tanya (Christine Baransky) and Rosie (Julie Walters) who have returned to Kalokairi for the reopening. While talking with them, Sophie gets the feeling that her life on the island is uncannily mirroring that of Donna’s in the past.

It is here that we get to the other half of the narrative by Johnson, Parker and Curtis, like the first half all original territory never explored in the first film and original musical. They use a similar convention as Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather Part 2” by alternating Sophie’s time with that of a younger Donna (Lily James) a disco-bombastic Oxford graduate and member of the Dynamos alongside Tanya and Rosie (Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies). Spurred by wanderlust to get away from her distant mother, Donna travels from the UK on a whim to Greece, where she has memorable encounters with the young Harry (Hugh Skinner), Bill (Josh Dylan) and then Sam (Jeremy Irvine) along the way. “Here We Go Again” gets points for maintaining the fog as to which of the three fathered Sophie with Donna.

While the first “Mamma Mia!” film was well-received by audiences and ABBA fans, it got mixed reviews from critics who noted the good acting, but pooh-poohed the attempts at singing by some of the cast, with focus on Pierce Brosnan (who won a Golden Raspberry for it). Thankfully perhaps, the lion’s share of musical singing was relegated to those who could carry a tune, though Brosnan’s Sam does do a slow a-cappella of the chorus from “SOS” while despondently looking at photos of young Donna.

Speaking of singing, being a musical based on the music of ABBA there is going to be a great emphasis on their songs, putting them in scenes to refer to subjects that the lyrics are relevant to. Several prominent songs performed in the original were reprised in “Here We Go Again”, including “The Name of the Game”, featured in a deleted scene with Seyfried’s Sophie, now sung by young Donna.

The rest of the soundtrack is more known perhaps in dedicated ABBA listeners, with the exception of “Fernando” which Ol Parker reportedly was able to work in by redirecting its references to the Mexican War into a general reference of Mexico. Spoiler alert, that country is a meaningful place for two of the movie’s new supporting cast, portrayed by Andy Garcia and singing sensation Cher.

An issue can be raised in that the alternating time and viewpoint between Sophie and young Donna may have lessened the depth of the present-day plot in favor of further fluffing the past plot, but the seamless cinematic transition between periods almost make it seem less a divergent narrative and more a whole, and can be said to gift the family of Donna and Sophie as happy an ending as can be asked for.

It is highly recommended to pay attention to the last few songs, especially the final one before the big credits sequence; they’re very emotional and cement just how indelible “Mamma Mia!” is now to 21st Century pop culture. “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” never drops the ball from its predecessor, and scores it most effectively.

Image courtesy of Slash Film

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