Money, money, money

Plot and dialogue are incidental to this cash-in on Abba's back catalogue

<strong>Mamma Mia! (P

"Thank you for the music" is unlikely to be the sentiment on the lips of theatregoers surveying the West End in the nine years since the opening in London of Mamma Mia! the musical. This shoehorned Abba's songs into a spurious storyline, and, since then, the bandwagon has been heaving with back-catalogue cash-ins from Queen, Rod Stewart, Madness and Take That. All this has made a handful of people very wealthy, including Ben Elton, who wrote the Queen and Rod Stewart ones, presumably to divest himself of those last pesky crumbs of dignity on his CV.

But the trend has done less to enrich the modern musical, turning it instead into a clothes line on which tried-and-tested songs can be pegged willy-nilly. Yes, I know Dennis Potter had his characters lip-syncing to pre-existing ditties, but those numbers were extensions and expressions of the inner drama. Underneath the songs, Mamma Mia!, on stage or now in its film version, is still just a clothes line.

Meryl Streep plays Donna, the owner of a modest hotel on the island of Kalokairi that employs locals whose sole purpose is to make up the numbers in dance routines, or to chip in on backing vocals. (They're a literal Greek chorus.) Unbeknownst to Donna, her fatherless daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), who is marrying Sky (Dominic Cooper), has sent wedding invitations to three of Donna's old flames in the hope of finding out which one is her pa. Will it be the buttoned-up banker Harry (Colin Firth), the rugged free spirit Bill (Stellan Skarsgård) or Sam the suave businessman (Pierce Brosnan)?

Brosnan is one of the best things here. He can't sing - someone should revoke his licence to trill - but he believes he can, and that's what counts. The rest of this heavyweight cast proves to be a mild liability. Whereas the stage version was performed by jobbing actors, the film is festooned with stars who plough industrial amounts of zeal into bringing to life scenes that were only ever intended as filler. Let's not pretend that anyone goes to Mamma Mia! for the plot or dialogue - that would be rather like watching Co-Ed Vixens Get Naked III just to see if the handyman with the mullet ever gets around to fixing that faulty boiler.

Of course, there's the music, which can withstand anything: after the apocalypse, there'll just be cockroaches whistling "Fernando". Still, very few of the songs fit the film's context. When Donna's friends Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski) find her crying in the toilet, they don't ask what the matter is - they just sing a ropey version of "Chiquitita" at her, which hardly seems an adequate response. Only one song is actually improved - the sleazy "Does Your Mother Know?", which always sounded like a paedophile's lament, but is rehabilitated here by a simple gender switch, with Tanya delivering it to a priapic young beach bum who's been pestering her.

The most successful numbers are those that don't badger us with office-party vulgarity. "The Winner Takes It All", which Streep belts out belligerently on a clifftop as though it's a deleted scene from Wuthering Heights, is like Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage in song form. And "Slipping Through My Fingers", a knife-twisting lyric about watching your child growing up, is delivered very tenderly by Streep; it had this parent coming over all maudlin and contemplating an overdose of cough syrup. But it's rare that the film and its music seem in sync.

Let's be realistic. I wasn't expecting Pennies from Heaven. But did the picture have to be chopped up into 1980s-style montages that make you certain Simon Le Bon will arrive on a yacht any minute wearing loafers and no socks? Did the cast have to overemote every line as though it was a set piece in itself, so that the actual musical numbers provide respite by comparison? And did it really have to be lit like a Pontin's disco? Despite the director Phyllida Lloyd's bullying way with the camera, the on-screen merriment looks forced and far away, as though we're observing it through one of those seaside telescopes - only this one doesn't go black when your three minutes is up. More's the pity.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, ‘I’ll leave when I finish the job’