How many ABBA movies do we really need? What is it about the innocuous, infectious Swedish pop music from the seventies that inspires filmmakers and filmgoers alike? The latest entry is this summer’s “Mamma Mia!” but back when Bill Clinton was wrestling with “Don’t ask, Don’t Tell” we got the film that didn’t wait to be asked and told anyway, “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” Both films let ABBA provide the irritatingly familiar soundtrack of choice for much romantic confusion in exotic locations.
No one ever really hears ABBA and thinks, “That was my favorite song.” The key to the use of this music in these films is that it plunges us into a slightly distant past, a past without iPods and headphones, a collective and strangely homogenous past when we all shared the soundtrack of our lives. You might have hated ABBA but you couldn’t get away from them. Those songs you love to hate are a time machine, a shorthand for the lameness and the badness and the innocence of the seventies. As bad as you might think ABBA songs were, a trip to the multiplex might convince you that lip synced ABBA is probably preferable to ABBA sung by other folks… even super talented world class actor folks. Meryl Streep sings. Terence Stamp lip syncs. Choose carefully.
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Where to begin? The trailer for Mamma Mia! had me so excited for months, anticipating… Meryl Streep so luminous and just right. The setting so beautiful. The music so hopelessly catchy. Expectations were high, high enough that we braved opening day. Lining up at the theater, with the testosterone-charged youth there for “The Dark Knight” hugging the opposite wall, I felt palpably middle aged. Scanning the crowds after buying a ticket, it was embarrassing joining the parade of too-ample flesh. A few husbands dragged along silently suffering and looking longingly at the movie line of their truer desire across the lobby, our line was buzzing with estrogen and as-yet undashed hopes, the last gasps of a Hillary rally. And then it began. The slightly opened-up film version of the long-running stage show features a barely-there plot about a wedding and a search for paternity and reunion. Donna (Meryl Streep) operates a dilapidated hotel on an idyllic Greek island; her finances are tight but not so tight that she doesn’t command a seemingly endless staff of island natives to do every menial task (without apparent renumeration) including dancing obligingly to every ABBA hit on the soundtrack.
On the eve of her wedding, daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) makes an intriguing and risky choice. Having grown up on the island with indefinite paternity but every other possible advantage, Sophie secretly invites the three men who loved her mother twenty some-odd years ago, hoping to have her birth father give her away to (borderline unappealing) boyfriend Sky. For the wedding weekend, the hotel is populated with English people and Americans, a real fantasy Greek island where only the chorus is Greek. Pierce Brosnan plays the guy you want Meryl Streep to end up with — he’s straight and he’s handsome and he loves her. He loves her so much that he even sings in public even though the look in his eyes while he’s singing assures even the most casual viewer that he does indeed know better. Stellan Skarsgard plays the guy you expect to kill Meryl Streep or just about anyone else in a scene with him, adding a certain unintended dramatic tension to just about any line uttered in his presence.
And Colin Firth plays the secretly gay guy whose coming-out is so subtle and quick that you might miss it if you blink and leave the movie convinced he’s just very British. Christine Baranski and Julie Walters gamely play Donna’s old friends and disco group back-up singers. Stuff happens. People fall in love. Yadda yadda yadda.
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The Defending Champion
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is essentially a road trip movie where non- conformists leave the relative safety of the big city for the more reactionary country, and ABBA music plays a large role. Two drag queens and a transsexual travel west in a lavender bus from Sydney to a remote resort in the Australian desert to perform a drag show there. Along the way, secrets are revealed and new and unexpected friendships flourish. No one does classic disco and glitter glam better than drag queens; the ridiculous over-the-top costumes won designers Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel a well deserved Academy Award. The imaginative production design offers a visual feast rivaling the unfamiliar and utterly remarkable Down Under desert vistas. The film wears its liberal heart on its sequined sleeve; a paean to acceptance and diversity, this film never resorts to diatribe or overstatement, allowing its characters to tell their stories in telling little glances and sidelong stories offered on the sly.
Mamma Mia! is ultimately disappointing, a muddled disco track movie with precious little dancing. Instead, we get lots of squealing and bouncing on beds and falling off roofs and jumping into an impossibly turquoise sea but no get-your-toe-tapping-in-spite-of-yourself choreography. Even the convoluted and predictable plot ends without effectively tying up all the loose ends and open plot questions. The real fun doesn’t even start till the closing credits. And that was just plain too late. (As far as terrific end credit musical sequences, Priscilla walks away with that contest too! A genuine and heartwarming sequence rewards those who wait for the very un-bitter end.)
So..Mamma Mia! doesn’t deliver on dance or on soundtrack. It may have well intentioned high spirits, but its brain’s been left in the white hot sun a little too long. If Sophie is twenty, that means disco was alive in 1988 and that flower children wore spandex and platform boots, making a bit of a hash of the cultural history of the last half of the twentieth century. Hippie dippie free love and disco? In the last of the Reagan years? Maybe my math’s a bit off. But to be kind, twenty years ago, pop culture had moved on from disco, and Ms. Walters, Ms. Streep and Ms. Baranski were already a few years past their metallic spandex jumpsuit-wearing primes. The math and the plot would clearly work better if the movie were a true period piece, but they mentioned the internet and there were no period touches that would lead me or anyone to believe that.
Look. Here’s the thing. Let’s give the benefit of the doubt to the filmmakers and say the plot and the casting and even the timeline make perfect sense. Still. It’s an ABBA musical. It should at the very least have compelling dance sequences. And it just plain doesn’t. There are plenty of dancers on the payroll, but they’re mostly consigned to running in formation and doing calisthenics. My junior high school gym class was as entertaining. A dance movie without choreography is an opportunity missed by a mile. And a location movie hat looks like the cast and crew are enjoying the view more than the audience wastes another easy mark. But the biggest miss of all is having a brilliant actress at the center of a movie that should be the most fun of the summer and stranding her way too close up in awkward scene after awkward scene, singing catchy but essentially witless ABBA lyrics as if they’re dialogue from another Swede, Strindberg. “Louder, Meryl. Louder.” That’s all the direction I imagine she got for her ear-shattering debacle “The Winner Takes It All.” No wonder she sprints so fast up the hill to the church right after. She’s mortified. And so, alas, was I.
All of Priscilla’s performers are treated with genuine gentleness and affection. The smallest cameo delivers and registers a kind of humanity missing entirely in Mamma Mia! where none of the Greeks even get names, let alone characters to play. Terence Stamp’s central performance is a true standout; his transsexual Bernadette is a world weary pioneer, and she’s had enough of fighting for her right to live peacefully and quietly. She’s had enough of sequins too, and Stamp tells you all of it in every dialogue-free close-up. Hugo Weaving’s Tick is a lovely and modulated piece of work as well.
For story, for choreography, for scenery, for use of music, for the infectious joy of moviemaking and identifiable human friendship. On just about every count, the Aussies know their disco.The Priscilla soundtrack has been playing in my car for fourteen years. I doubt the Mamma Mia! soundtrack will get on my playlist…though I may well use Pierce Brosnan’s numbers as teaching tools and cautionary tales for students struggling with delusions of grandeur. Filled with genuine surprises and absolutely stunning vistas of an unfamiliar landscape, the choreography and costuming upstages everything but this lovely lyrical road movie’s unstoppable heart. It’s The Adventure of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert by a lip-syncing, cross-dressing cinematic mile.
Enjoy this review? Read Mark Sanchez’s Mamma Mia! (2008) -vs- Hairspray (2007)