Mamma Mia (6/10)
by Tony Medley
What does Hollywood have
against musicals? Would it cast Fred Astaire instead of Clark Gable as
Rhett Butler in 1939’s “Gone With the Wind,” Bing Crosby instead of
Humphrey Bogart as Rick in 1942’s “Casablanca,” or Pat Boone as Terry
Malone instead of Marlon Brando in 1954’s “On the Waterfront?” These
were roles for dramatic actors, not song and dance men.
Yet Hollywood constantly
casts dramatic actors instead of people with musical talent as leads in
musicals, witness Brando in “Guys and Dolls,” Rossano Brazzi as Emile
de Becque, the role of operatic star Ezio Pinza in “South Pacific;”
Vanessa Redgrave instead of Julie Andrews in “Camelot,” Natalie Wood as
Maria in “West Side Story.” The list is almost endless and the movies
suffered as a result.
When will producers learn
that musicals are about MUSIC? All these casting decisions that put the
music in second place behind acting made those films less than what they
could, and should, have been. Now comes “Mamma Mia,” a movie of a play
that was written by putting together many of the hit songs of the
wonderful ABBA singing group of the ‘70s. I saw the play in its
pre-Broadway run here in Los Angeles at the Shubert and it was a
knockout. I was really looking forward to the movie.
The movie does have
gorgeous cinematography (Haris Zambarloukos) of the Greek locations and
the same wonderful music, albeit unevenly performed. Unfortunately, it
also has Meryl Streep in the starring role. Fifty years ago, the
perfect casting for this role would have been Doris Day or Shirley Jones. This film is
about music and it demands a professional singer, not an award-winning
dramatic actress with no musical cred. I know that Streep has a singing
voice because I saw her in 2006’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” But she is
not a professional singer. I can play the piano, but the Hollywood Bowl
is not about to ask me to play Rhapsody in Blue on its stage.
If the producers really
wanted a blonde devoid of movie star beauty and with little or no sex
appeal for the role, however, they could have cast Celine Dion instead
of Streep. Celine at least has a professional’s voice and knows how to
sell a song.
Much better casting would
have been Reba McEntire. She’s the right age; she’s sexy; she has so
many hits they fill volumes. She can act a little. Best of all, she
knows how to belt out a song. This role
doesn’t require Method acting. Let’s face it, the story was written
around the music, which explains why it’s so weak. What the role
requires is masterful singing. The songs sung by Streep fell completely
flat for me until the end credits when she sings a couple of encores
with her former group members from the ‘70s, Rosie (Julie Walters) and
Tanya (Christine Baranski). Fittingly, the credits for Walters and
Baranski are virtually devoid of musical experience.
The directing (Plyllida
Lloyd, who directed the play and whose experience is exclusively from
the theater) and script (Catherine Johnson, who did a good job of
writing a moderately entertaining book around the music, but whose
experience is also has exclusively for the theater) fall far short of
what I was expecting. Lloyd fills the first half of this movie with such
contrived conviviality it destroys the verisimilitude of the characters.
All these scenes ring terribly false.
There really aren’t any
beautiful women in this movie. In addition to the sexless Streep,
Sophie, the illegitimate daughter of Donna (Streep) is played by Amanda
Seyfried. I’m not sure why she was cast in this role. She’s not
movie-star beautiful (although, as the only moderately attractive woman
in the movie, she appears a rose among thorns). She isn’t a great singer
(like everyone else in the cast, her credits don’t include any musical
experience). She’s not much of a dancer. There was a perfect person to
play Sophie, Mandy Moore, or, if they wanted to take a chance, Natasha
Bedingfield. Both are prettier than Seyfried, but more important, they
are both major league singers. There are lots of beautiful young singers
who could have taken this role. Why Seyfried (unless she came cheap)?
Sophie’s joined by two friends, Lisa (Rachel McDowall) and Ali (Ashley
Lilley), whose looks in comparison make Sophie more attractive than she
As to the dancing, I was
enormously disappointed in the choreography by Anthony Van Laast, who
did the choreography for the play. Maybe the inferior dancing is not so
surprising because the dancing in the play wasn’t that much to write
home about. Van Laast really misses the mark with the choreography for
the song that was the real show-stopper in the play, “Dancing Queen.” He
has the entire cast jumping around on a dock. In fact, most of his
choreography involved people jumping, including Streep jumping up and
down on a bed. There’s nothing Fosse-like about it, and it detracts from
the music. Fortunately, Streep, Walters, and Baranski sing ‘Dancing
Queen” (and “Waterloo”) again over the closing credits, all dressed up
like ABBA in the ‘70s, and it is the best part of the film.
The men have all the best
of it in this film because, mostly, they don’t have to sing. None of
them, Stellan Skarsgǻrd, Pierce Brosnan, and Colin Firth, is a singer,
but only Brosnan and Firth sing, with even less effect than Streep.
Three of Brosnan’s four songs, “SOS,” “I Do, I Do,…” and “When All is
Said and Done,” are duets with Streep. Firth sings playing a guitar
(“Our Last Summer”). Like everyone else in the cast, he’s not ready for
Carnegie Hall. Singing aside, the men all give good performances,
however. The only woman whose performance gets a passing grade from me
is Baranski, who makes the best of her material, despite the absurdity
of her character.
All the lack of attention
to the quality of the music is puzzling because the executive producers
are Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus, the two men who wrote all of
ABBA’s music. My guess is that they must have fallen for the financiers’
demands that the movie feature a bankable star, so they accepted Streep.
I can’t imagine that anyone who could create music as great as ABBA’s
would voluntarily accept someone with Streep’s modest singing ability as
The quality of the written
music and the cinematography carry this film, even with the appalling
lack of musical credentials and ability of the cast, so it’s a film that
most people might enjoy.
But, unlike most, I am more
like Bobby Kennedy, who was fond of quoting George Bernard Shaw, “You
see things as they are and say ‘why?’ I dream things that never were and
ask, ‘Why not?'”
July 7, 2008