Heartbreak No. 1: “Mamma Mia” Misses The Essence Of ABBA

Kate Richardson | December 8, 2008 3:00 am

In addition to choosing our 80 favorite musical recordings, people, places, movements, and events of the year, Idolator has also chosen eight of its least favorites of 2008. In the first Heartbreak, Kate Richardson looks at a movie that misses an opportunity to immortalize Sweden’s greatest pop group—and its greatest ’70s fashion plates—on the big screen.

I saw Mamma Mia three times in theaters this summer. On the one hand it’s a garish, uncomfortable, oftentimes embarrassing, poorly directed spectacle that somehow makes even Meryl Streep look like an amateur, but on the other hand… there’s a sort of feel-good vibe infused throughout the entire mess that made it strangely irresistible to me. I was fascinated by this movie, how something could be so outrageously awful and yet still somehow genuinely appealing.

Still, Mamma Mia remains a missed opportunity. I’ve never seen the Broadway show, but I’ve heard that it’s more or less awful. The movie was a chance to reverse that—to do justice to the brilliant concept of an ABBA musical and all the campiness it implies. The music is so tightly constructed and richly produced; it deserves a strong visual treatment, something along the lines of the band’s distinctive music videos, which were edited and choreographed with perfect symmetry. But instead of an homage to the order and geometry of ABBA’s music and aesthetic, the movie is a visual free-for-all of meandering dance numbers (“Dancing Queen,” for instance, ends with Meryl jumping off of a pier for no apparent reason), and indistinct cinematography. (What is an ABBA-themed visual experience without soft focus and four-way split screens?)

Perhaps none of that has a place in a mainstream film that’s not actually about ABBA, but a more ambitious movie could have conveyed the narrative while at the same time capturing the band’s glitzy, excessive essence. Instead, Mamma Mia is a fluffy mess. This clip just about sums it up: Meryl Streep’s face superimposed over a roulette wheel, Christine Baranski sitting on a jet ski on the deck of a boat:

80 ’08 (and Heartbreak)

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