The hubby and I took what I call a “marriage health day” yesterday. It’s when we take the day off from work, drop the kids off at daycare, and head into the city for a “daylight date.” We usually have breakfast, take in a movie, and grab lunch. We just spend time, y’know, being a couple, and taking a few minutes to remember what brought us together eight years ago in the first place. By then it’s usually time to go get the kids. This time, the movie had special resonance for us.
As soon as we heard that Meryl Streep had agreed to star in Mama Mia! we knew it would be our next “date movie.” (Normally, we have entirely different tastes in movies. I tend toward darker, dramatic fare, and documentaries. He prefers comedies and light fare.) We’d gone to see the stage version at the National Theater when we were dating. Later on, the Abba song from which the show and movie borrowed their title became part of a special memory for our family.
So, we had a kind of queer family “Hallmark moment” last night, that I thought I’d share. The hubby was sitting on the floor playing with Parker, when Parker suddenly exclaimed “Mama Mia!” (Given that he has two gay dads, you might be able to guess where this is going. If not, read on.)
I’m not sure where Parker picked that up, but think there’s a character in one of his favorite shows (my guess is Mr. Sabatini, from Bob the Builder), but the next thing I know, the hubby exclaims “Hey Parker, did you know there’s a “Mama Mia” song? Maybe Daddy can play it!”
What more needed to be said? Can you guess what happened next?
That’s right. I dashed to the computer, fired up iTunes, and soon we were all dancing and singing to… Well, you get the picture.
Yup. Picture the three of us dancing around singing “Mama Mia.” Parker is probably the only five-year-old boy for several blocks who knows every song on the Abba Gold CD. We play it in the car a lot. It’s pretty safe music for a five-year-old, and fun. I can’t help singing harmony, and sometimes if I wasn’t singing, Parker would ask/demand “Daddy sing!” I refrained from singing in the movie. (Unlike the woman who, I still remember now, sang along almost all the way through the stage show when we saw it. I was this close to leaning over and saying her “Honey, can you show me your name in the program? Oh, it’s not in there? You’re not in the cast? Oh, well you were singing so loudly that I just assumed you were supposed to be doing that…”)
About the movie. Well, the hubby and I agreed once we stepped back out into the daylight, that it was just what it was supposed to be; a fun, campy, slightly over-the-top summer movie. I only read one review before going to see it, and that was a rather odd review in the Washington Post that I’d classify as “playfully harsh.” I ended up taking issue with it in a couple of places after seeing the movie.
First, Meryl Streep sings just fine. If you’re going into the theater expecting to hear Agnetha or Anna-Frid, of course you’re going to be disappointed. And Streep has the good sense not to try sounding like an Abba clone. She uses her voice effectively, and approaches the songs in a way that works for her voice. And if the author doesn’t think that Streep has the range to pull off the material, I can only guess that she went to the bathroom during a few key moments. She’s right that “Dancing Queen,” with its Greek chorus (a device deployed frequently in this movie) of women easily makes for one of the most fun moments in the film. (I admit it. I wanted nothing so much as to be on that dock with the ladies, though I wouldn’t have minded being on the same dock with the guys for “Lay All Your Love on Me” later in the movie.) And, true to form, Streep manages to belt out “The Winner Takes it ALl” (a favorite of mine that I remember hearing on the radio, as one of the last songs Abba released, and singing it at the top of my lungs without changing the pronoun in the second verse) and add some very actressy touches that turned it into a dramatic monolog.
Not much to say about the rest of the Dynamos. Christine Baranski is perfectly cast, and turns in a rollicking rendition of “Does Your Mamma Know.” I’m not familiar enough with Julie Walters to say much about her, but she fills out the trio very well, adds some fun to “Take a Chance on Me,” and managed to sing “Chiquitita” and get out the first word believably. (The actress in the stage version we saw hesitated a bit, which the audience took as an unspoken acknowledgement that there’s almost no way to sing that word seriously.)
Now we come to the one weak spot in the cast. I just have to ask. Sweet Jeezus, why did they let Pierce Brosnan sing?
So please explain the decision to let Pierce Brosnan sing for himself in the movie version of Mamma Mia!
Believe me, I want to say only nice things about the film, but I can’t. Every time I try, I flash back to the former James Bond star attempting to make it through an ABBA song. It’s the timbre of his voice. It doesn’t match up with his robust masculine image. High-pitched and only vaguely melodious, the vocals elicit laughter from the audience. It’s like listening to Chucky, the doll in those slasher movies, take center stage in a karaoke bar.
I winced the moment he opened his mouth to sing. By the end, I’d begun to wince a little less, but the movie was over. Afterward, I wracked my brain trying to think of actors who can sing, and who could have been ask in the part. There had to be someone, right? I’d even have accepted John Travolta. But even Richard Gere might have been a reasonable choice. (Though his singing in Chicago was panned by some. Maybe I ignored it because I found him kinda sexy.) Then it hit me. Christopher Walken. He was originally a song-and-dance man, and did a good job in Hairspray. Then there’s the fact that he was cast as an American, and ended up sounding like an American who’d been living in London for years. I’ve got to wonder if Brosnan didn’t insist on playing that part, and no one could say no to him for one reason or another.
I noticed that one of my favorite songs from the stage version — “Knowing Me Knowing You” — was cut from the movie soundtrack. On stage, it was about the biggest number any of the male characters had, and it was sung by Brosnan’s character as a way of telling the story of his divorce. It’s also a somewhat demanding number, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it was cut because Brosnan didn’t have the pipes for it. To his credit though, when he’s not singing Brosnan gives a fine performance.
I understand the difficulty here. I remember from my musical theater background the constant question: Do we want a singer who’s can act well enough, or an actor who can sing well enough? Sometimes the choices are obvious. The creators of My Fair Lady wanted Rex Harrison badly enough to cast him even though he couldn’t sing — he actually spoke most of the lyrics — and it’s said that “I’ve Grown accustomed to Her Face” was written entirely around the six notes or so that he could sing. Antonio Banderas in Evita was another risky choice that turned out to be a good one, at least in my opinion. Maybe I was too busy looking at him to care that much, and maybe I wasn’t wedded to Mandy Patinkin’s portrayal in the Broadway version. Brosnan is incredibly easy on the eyes. Always has been, but not so much that it cancels out how easy he’s not on the ears.
My only other criticism concurs with the Post reviewer on the editing of the musical numbers. It’s difficult to translate the dance numbers to the screen, but some of them come across painfully choppy here, to the point of distracting from the film itself. It’s most evident in “Does Your Mama Know,” which could have been smoother in terms of editing. I’m no director, but I suspect I would have let the camera just follow Baranski, and pull back in order to see the way the dancing of the rest of the cast frames her performance.
Editing also nearly spoiled what was one of Streep’s best moments in the film, “The Winner Takes it All.” For a moment, with so much cutting between Streep and Brosnan, I began to feel like the director was trying to see how many camera angles she could work into the song. Again, I’m no director, but I would have had the camera slowly and smoothly pan around Streep and Brosnan, 360 degrees. I think it would have heightened the drama of the moment, and framed it against the scenery of the location much better.
It has some clunky moments, but if you’re looking for a fun summer movie, and you like Abba, Mama Mia! is a good choice.