A confession: I had no intention of seeing Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. But after a snafu at a Parisian cinema where I ended up with a non-refundable ticket, my options were limited. I had not seen the first Mamma Mia! since its release a decade ago (my wife assures me it’s mildly entertaining). But it was 95 degrees outside in Paris, and the air conditioned theatre beckoned, so I figured, why not? Guess I’ll watch a musical sequel based on the songs of ABBA.
Dear reader, let me tell you, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again was wonderful. Sheer delight and cinematic optimism, and perhaps the best jukebox musical of the 21st-century.
The story picks up a year after the death of Donna Sheridan (Meryl Streep) as her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) prepares for the grand opening of the hotel her mother dreamt of on the tiny Greek island of Kalokairi. Having addressed the question of her father’s identity in the previous film, Sophie now moves forward with her three dads’ support, even as she continues to grieve the loss of her mom. Structurally, the narrative jumps back and forth between Sophie’s present-day memorializing and Donna’s experiences in 1979 which would set the course of her life, including the birth of Sophie. Dare I say, it’s the The Godfather Part II of ABBA-based musicals, with both past and present paralleling each other in perfect harmony. The young Donna is portrayed by Lily James in a strikingly vibrant performance. It’s hard to describe just how great James is here; when she shows up in the opening flashback sequence in her graduation from Oxford, it’s like a fireworks explosion of positivity goes off in the room. She smiles, she dances, she leaps about with effortless abandon, and she sings. She’s simply enchanting. So it’s no wonder that three young men–Harry (Colin Firth, Hugh Skinner), Bill (Stellan Skarsgård, Josh Dylan), and Sam (Pierce Brosnan, Jeremy Irvine)–fall in love with her at first sight, clearly enamored by her vibrant spirit. She’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl with strength and soul and singing chops and a degree from Oxford. With the emotional and musical support of her friends/bandmates, Tanya (Christine Baranski, Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Julie Walters, Alexa Davies), Donna wanders Europe until she ends up at Grecian island where Sophie continues her legacy.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again feels like it was made more for a Broadway stage than a movie theatre. The production design is vivid and intentionally stagey, the costumes so bright and flamboyant as to be borderline garish. I was initially put off by the artifice and aesthetic of some of the set designs and camerawork, but I was ultimately won over by this idyllic vision by the performances. The younger actors who portray the older versions of the original stars are impeccably cast, and I’m willing to say Lily James outshines Meryl Streep here (though, to be fair, Streep’s presence is minimal). Some new supporting performances from Andy Garcia and Cher are welcomed additions to an already spectacular cast. Everyone is clearly having a good time, and their joy is contagious. I loved that I didn’t need to be overly familiar with ABBA’s discography in order to enjoy the musical numbers, as the songs are perfectly incorporated into the film’s narrative arc.
In watching the film, I feel like I experienced a conversion of sorts. In spite of my naively optimistic demeanor and romantic soul, I remain skeptical of most movie musicals. Over the course of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again my cynicism was broken down until I was tearing up at a climactic baptism scene and my feet tapping/dancing to the final number. I use a religious word like “conversion” intentionally, as this was a moment where I was reluctant to appreciate, let alone enjoy, the artwork before me. But it won me over in a way I can only describe as repentance, an unexpected, holistic turnaround, like a renewed spirit at baptism upon emerging from the waters. Once I was open and willing to receive the artwork for what it is, it changed me. It’s a film about maintaining hope and optimism in the face of grief and loss, a story about both nostalgia and progress, facing the past while embracing the future. It’s pure gold.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6911608/