Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of Abba must over the years have considered what they would do if they were asked to sign off on a second iteration of what can only be called the Mamma Mia!movie franchise – which first appeared in 2008. Perhaps they thought that, in the words of the song: “If I had to do the same again, I would my friend, because quite frankly it’s a licence to print money.”
That first film made me break out in a combination of hives and bubonic plague. And to be honest, this new one does have the original film’s plotless melange of feelgoodery, an exotically amorphous jellyfish of a film which is periodically zapped with the million-volt shock of a zingingly brilliant Abba tune.
But something in the sheer relentless silliness and uncompromising ridiculousness of this, combined with a new flavour of self-aware comedy, made me smile in spite of myself: there are funny, campy performances from Cher, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters and also Alexa Davies as Walters’s younger self, and some very good lines. People are always running absurdly around a Greek island waving their arms in the air like they just don’t care and it’s always sunny, except when – gasp! – there’s a storm and plans for the relaunch of a tourist hotel are briefly and unimportantly derailed. This film reminded me weirdly in its staging of Kenneth Branagh‘s 90s film version of Much Ado About Nothing, with its golden southern European hues and beaming cast. There’s the same bizarre plot convolutions and holiday-romance departure from reality.
After the first film, I noted that the song Fernando was not included and suggested that next time they should include a hearing-impaired character of that name and someone desperately worried should bang a particular percussion instrument and ask of Fernando a certain impassioned question. In fact, Cher sings Fernando now, and addresses it to a bearded Andy Garcia who is the hotel manager and whose first name has been withheld from us until this point. This ballad of the Mexican-American war has supposedly been updated to memories of 1959, with Andy presumably a veteran of postwar Mexican insurrection against the one-party state? Cher has a blonde wig for this number and she looks like Madonna on Xanax singing Don’t Cry for Me Argentina. It is very – and I think intentionally – funny.
The setting is the modern Greece in which the fisherfolk sit around, as someone remarks, in joyless subjection to their economic woes. Sophie, played by Amanda Seyfried, is planning to relaunch her hotel but her relationship with Sky (Dominic Cooper) is in crisis. Her emotional worries give her a new insight into how her mum must have felt at her age; and this is Donna, played in cameo by Meryl Streep.
Half the film will be taken up in flashback to the life of young Donna, played by Lily James. It is supposed to be the late 70s, and she impulsively shows up on this unnamed Greek island, and equally impulsively shags young Pierce Brosnan, played by Jeremy Irvine and then young Stellan Skarsgård, played by Josh Dylan – having already in Paris impulsively shagged young Colin Firth, played by Hugh Skinner. And then of course she gets pregnant, creating the who-is-the-dad mystery which the original stage version borrowed from the otherwise utterly forgotten 1968 film Buona Sera Mrs Campbell, starring Gina Lollobrigida.
In the present day, these chaps’ middleaged selves will of course turn up, although this sequel disappointingly shies away from the suggestion that Colin Firth’s character Harry is gay. But the big new character is of course Donna’s mother Ruby, played drolly by Cher, who shows up on the island by helicopter. For some reason.
In the past, I have discussed the three stages that Abba have gone through in the public mind: first being reviled, then being ironically liked (this being the milieu of the 1994 Toni Collette movie Muriel’s Wedding and perhaps also Alan Partridge’s 1992 chat show Knowing Me, Knowing You) and finally just flat-out adored as pop geniuses. The Mamma Mia movies are of course sited in the third era, but maybe they are actually reclaiming some of the irony and tongue-in-cheekiness of the second phase, repurposing it as zany surreality.
There is, after all, not much else that they can do, given that the juke-box musical format will stretch conventional dramatic credibility to breaking point for just one film, never mind two. (Or three? Four?) This whole thing looks like a preposterous and mad dream you might have after eating your bodyweight in feta. More enjoyable than I thought. But please. Enough now.