This is part 2 in a potentially infinite but really probably only 3-part series in which I aim to break the film adaptation of Mamma Mia! down into its component parts (component parts of AWESOMENESS, let it be known) and examine each one at length. Part 1 is here.
To recap: I love Mamma Mia! because friendly people, good parents, and men willing not only to rearrange their lives to accommodate the needs of the women they love but to do it with joyous hearts and without complaint.
But, oh, there is so much more to love! There’s the casting. I mean, how do you watch Julie Walters and not think about both Educating Rita and Billy Elliot and then just have all these ideas about self-determination and being who you want to be and not fitting into the role that society sets for you swirling around in your head informing your interpretation of whatever else you’re watching her in? No, seriously, tell me how, because I don’t think you can, and I think it’s so important to think about exactly those things while you watch this movie. There’s the fact that this movie is only saved from failing the reverse Bechdel Test by one brief exchange between Harry and Bill about Bill’s job as a travel writer. Oh! And there’s the whole part where there are women in their 50’s who can do splits and put their legs behind their heads and, I mean, come on, when was the last time you saw that in a movie? Then, of course, there are the songs (The songs, Jim! The songs! Ah, they’d blister your face.).
I mean, how much do I love the “Super Trouper” scene, for example, where Donna and the Dynamos reunite to perform during Sophie’s bachelorette party. For one thing, I just like what the song’s about. It’s a very low-stress love song, not a “need you forever or I will literally die” kind of deal. With lyrics like, “I was sick and tired of everything/When I called you last night from Glasgow…So I’ll be there when you arrive/The sight of you will prove to me I’m still alive,” it works as a song Donna could have sung about a man 20 years ago but can also sing about her daughter now. In contrast to the “Honey Honey” scene, in which Sophie enthusiastically sings lines like “I feel like I wanna sing when you do your…THING!” while reading from her mom’s old diary, this scene provides a welcome lack of squick. (I do have a theory that mitigates the squick factor, though. We’ll get into it in more detail in the next post, but basically any time I feel like something doesn’t quite make sense with a song in this movie, I just assume it’s an old Dynamos song and the characters are constrained by the original lyrics. Sophie doesn’t really want to be so excited to sing a line like “And, honey, to say the least, you’re a dog-gone beast!” about her potential father, but she has to because the song says. I really need for this to be true. Moving on.)
I also like what the scene is about, and this goes back to my feelings on how the movie handles intergenerational friendships and parents earning respect as well. Sophie and her friends get super excited when they realize the Dynamos are about to perform. Sophie is really moved by this performance and it’s a very sweet moment between mother and daughter. With Meryl Streep as Donna it’s hard not to contrast this scene with the “You Don’t Know Me”/“I’m Still Here” scene from Postcards From the Edge. But this is so not a movie where a mother would push her daughter into providing the perfect opportunity for her mother to upstage her.
Then there’s the “Does Your Mother Know” scene. There’s a rather young man – IMDb tells me his name is Pepper but that’s never actually said in the movie as far as I can tell – who’s very interested in Tanya and for the most part she is having none of it. I’m a bit of a sucker for things that twist stereotypical gender roles in a way that doesn’t reinforce the stereotypes (and all the better if it manages to comment on them a bit). So, just the fact that this movie has a younger man-older woman pairing at all, and especially the fact that it does not contain the reverse, makes me happy. The original song is from the point of view of a man singing to a much younger woman. It comes off as very condescending and I’m-here-to-police-your-sexuality-because-obviously-you-don’t-know-your-own-body-and-also-I-want-to-make-sure-your-parents-are-properly-policing-it-too. The original song is kind of gross, is what I’m saying. And in general I would say any older person telling a much younger person “I can see what you want/But you seem pretty young to be searching for that kind of fun” is inappropriate regardless of the gender mix or relationship between the two people. Not being interested in dating far outside one’s own age group is fine, but there’s no need to be a jerk about it when the opportunity presents itself. Somehow this movie manages to make it so that what would be condescending and inappropriate coming from a man sounds powerful coming from a woman. There are so many ways that could be problematic, assuming that controlling male behavior is the standard and therefore it’s OK when a woman imitates it and elevates herself to the level of a man, but for me that’s offset by the focus throughout the whole movie on how Tanya just isn’t interested. She’s not trying to control Pepper’s behavior, she just kind of wants him to leave her alone and maybe she has to be a little blunt to get that done
The movie walks a similarly fine line with Harry. For Harry, Donna represents the one time in his life he was spontaneous. She represents a sort of wildness that he’s never felt at any other time and clearly wishes he could recapture. He’s also openly gay and describes Donna as the first and last girl he ever loved. I think there could be a way to write a gay man looking back on the one relationship he ever had with a woman and having regrets about not living more of his life the way he lived it with her that could have some really unpleasant implications, but the script avoids that by having there be no real conflict over Harry’s sexuality (though there is an unnecessary reaction shot to a worried old man after Harry tells Donna he’s gay at the wedding). I think it frees up the movie to make his wistful longing over his Donna days be just about his boring current life vs. some excitement from his youth and I love that. He’s not regretting his chance to be straight, he’s regretting his chance to be excited by life. Honestly, I think this says more about how other movies have conditioned me to expect any depiction of homosexuality to be a BIGFUCK DEAL WE HAVE TO STOP THE MOVIE RIGHT NOW AND TALK/MAKE JOKES ABOUT than about Mamma Mia! itself. Other movies let me down all the time, you guys, and I don’t even notice until I’m surprised that a movie doesn’t.
You know what other song I love? “The Winner Takes it All,” because goddamn, Meryl Streep, be a little more amazing, please. Seriously. When she gets to, “Tell me does she kiss/Like I used to kiss you?/Does it feel the same/When she calls your name?” I just. fucking. die. It’s right up there with that scene in Before Sunset when Julie Delpy reaches out and almostohmygodsoclosebutthenshedoesn’t touches Ethan Hawke’s face.
And you know what else is great about that scene? It’s this amazing scene of Donna just letting out everything she’s felt for the last 20 years and through the whole thing Sam just has to stand there and listen to it. He doesn’t say a word, or even try, until the very end. He’s pretty much just a prop in Donna’s scene. I know I keep saying it but I cannot get enough of how this movie lets the women be out in front running things and the men are just there to serve a purpose when the plot demands.
Last on the list of scenes I love, we have “Dancing Queen.” Because let’s talk about this for a minute: the movie never judges Donna for having slept with 3 men right around the same time. Sophie never judges Donna, Donna’s friends never judge Donna, the 3 men themselves never judge Donna. Donna’s the only one who judges Donna. She’s always a little embarrassed about this part of her past and after she discovers the 3PDs in her hotel and just can’t cope with this situation, she laments to her friends that she “was a stupid, reckless little slut.” But Rosie and Tanya just will not let that sort of statement stand. First they admonish her for being so judgmental of herself (“Don’t you sound like your mother!” “It’s Catholic guilt!”) and then – and this is the part I really love, you guys, because I kind of wish something like this would happen in real life every time somebody was too down on themselves for something that really isn’t that big a deal – they sing “Dancing Queen” at her until she can’t stand it anymore and joins in. And then, just in case we didn’t get the point that women are free to be whatever they want to be in this movie, all 3 of them dance through the streets of town singing “Dancing Queen” until all the women in town can’t stand it anymore and they throw off their domestic tasks and join in and then all the women in town dance through the streets singing “Dancing Queen” while the men stand off to the side and watch and I just really love that idea is all.
Well. That almost covers every single little thing I love about this movie. Probably all the things I will write about here, though, because otherwise I would just be saying things like, “Oh, and I really like how she delivers that one line there,” or, “I don’t know, I just kind of think that moment is awesome,” and, really, we don’t have time for that sort of nonsense. There’s still one more Mamma Mia! post to come, however, because we really do need to talk about all the things that just don’t make sense about this movie. Or, well, I need to talk about those things. You might not care about those things, I don’t know, but I will be back soon to at least try to convince you that you should care. Because if we can’t make up stories to convince ourselves that our favorite things really are perfect and the writers didn’t make a mistake and really the continuity is totally there if you just look for it, then where would we be? Not in any kind of world I want to live in, I tell you.