By Orla Smith.
In the interest of full discretion, mine was a childhood and adolescence filled with ABBA. Over the years, ABBA’s music has delighted me, made me sob, and made me dance. A shared love of their songbook has bolstered friendships; they are my trusty go-to on drunken karaoke nights. While the Swedish group is often dismissed as a guilty pleasure, I hope we’re coming to the point where liking ABBA is cool again. Their music is a pure form of ecstasy. Whatever you’re feeling, there is an ABBA song to match — but even if it’s the deepest sorrow and melancholy, Benny, Björn, Agnetha, and Anni-Frid express that in a way that makes you feel truly alive.
Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again is a joyous, fun, sincere, emotional extravaganza of a film that works so well because it understands exactly why ABBA is great. Songs like Dancing Queen, Super Trouper, and Waterloo help us escape from our mundane lives — just like Toni Collette’s Muriel in another ABBA-themed film, Muriel’s Wedding (1994). These songs also encourage us to see universal emotions like loss, joy, and love as huge, beautiful, and worthy of celebration. By indulging the fantasy of life on a beautiful, fictional Greek island, while still engaging with the reality of motherhood, female friendship, and grief, both Mamma Mia (2008) and its sequel Here We Go Again are like an ABBA song unto themselves.
While my love for Phyllida Lloyd’s original is eternal, Here We Go Again is something of an epic in comparison: it’s a better film, with a bigger scope in terms of space, time, and emotion. Director Ol Parker sprinkles countless ABBA songs-and-dances into a story spanning two timelines. We met Donna (Meryl Streep) and her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) in the original, when we were told of Donna’s escapades with three young men in her youth that resulted in a pregnancy where any one of them could be the father. In the sequel, Lily James takes on the role of Donna in 1979, and we see her brief but memorable adventures with these men first-hand. Meanwhile, in the present day, Sophie plans the grand re-opening of the hotel Donna spent decades of her life running — it’s been closed since Donna died a year previously.
This is the clearest demonstration of James’ star power we’ve yet to see: she is ABBA personified, a vibrant spirit who embraces the hedonistic instincts of her heart. James’ presence is huge and awesome enough that we believe that Donna is a woman amazing enough to change the lives of these three men in such a brief period of time — as well as the lives of all the people who celebrate her after she’s gone. She’s not at all similar to Streep’s more worn-down and subdued incarnation, but that only increases the film’s emotional wallop, as their differences mark the signs of a full life lived. This younger Donna has her whole life ahead of her: she’s introduced with a spirited rendition of When I Kissed the Teacher at her university graduation. This wild musical number immediately lets us into the gleefully silly tone of the whole film. Right now, Donna feels nothing but pure joy and possibility. At the start of a film that promises to be this much fun the whole way through, we’re right there with her.
While Here We Go Again is often as delightful and light-hearted as a summer fling, it draws a strong and lasting emotional current not through the intense and fleeting passions of romance, but through the unconditional bond between mothers and daughters, and between best friends. As Donna’s closest friends and ex-bandmates, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters sneakily steal the film. Baranski’s savage, sly charm and Walters’ warm stubbornness combine in a comedic rapport so effortless that it’s clear these women have decades of affectionate bickering in their past. Their younger counterparts, Jessica Keenan-Wynn and Alexa Davies, are just as winning. Then, of course, there’s the emotional core of these films: mother and daughter Donna and Sophie. We follow both of their stories, making the similarities between these young women clear — they make the same choices and sing the same songs. Both are big-hearted, resilient, and determined. Both are completely devoted to the other.
The musical numbers are at their most powerful when they demonstrate the uplifting power of ABBA’s music. When Dancing Queen kicks in at Sophie’s lowest point, the everything-will-be-alright-in-the-end attitude of the song is so infectious that it believably shifts the entire mood of the film from that point on, pulling every character out of their slump. James’ rendition of the title song is a highlight. Donna is heartbroken, sitting in a bar with her friends, feeling utterly deflated. She decides to sing about how she feels: “I was cheated by you and I think you know when.” It starts off acapella and downbeat, but as that infectious music plays on, Donna harnesses its unstoppable energy. Before long she turns that heartbreak into rage, and then into ecstasy. She’s back on her feet, belting out the lyrics: “Mamma mia, here I go again.” She won’t let the pain of heartbreak stop her from falling in love again, because ABBA’s music reminds her how good it is to feel, no matter how tough those feelings may be.
Cynical audiences beware. Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again will grab hold of anyone who approaches it with an open-hearted. It’s an unapologetic celebration of emotion. Plus, it has Cher!
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