Get your groove on with these two films that pit a pair of musical mommas against each other in a cinematic dance-off and sing-a-long. It’s Oscar-winner Meryl Streep against John Travolta in drag. That was tough to write: John Travolta in drag. Okay then, that’s behind us now.
Both Mamma Mia! and Hairspray have been on Broadway and on film, joining in and/or following such similar fare as Chicago, Dreamgirls, Sweeney Todd, and even The Producers, all of which gave new vitality to the form. Mamma Mia! offers the most recent evidence of this resurgent strength to an art form that was not so long ago falling out of favor. The year before it was Hairspray. Perhaps most amazing, I heard the audience singing along with several of the tunes in both shows. Okay, moms (well, you know what I mean), let’s rock it out!
This homage to the music of the pop group ABBA earned $175 million in its first two weeks. No musical has ever opened this strongly. Mamma Mia! has Sophie Sheridan getting married in the rundown hotel operated by her mother Donna (Streep) on a small Greek island. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) wants to find the mysterious father she never met and Donna’s old diary gives Sophie a chance to play detective. She finds references to three special men, and Sophie invites all three to the wedding with the idea she’ll learn which one (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard) is dear old dad. Mom knows nothing about this, and neither do the men. Adding to the confusion is a frisky pair of Donna’s girlfriends (Christine Baranski, Julie Walters) who raise the general anxiety level. Characters advance the dramatic conflict by breaking into song. All Abba, all movie long. Eventually, the parental identities are sorted out at the alter, although the wedding ceremony plays out differently than originally planned. Phyllida Lloyd directed Catherine Johnson’s script adapted from her stage play.
The Defending Champion
It’s the early 1960s and chubby teen Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) wants to dance on the local Corny Collins TV show. It’s a different scene than the Baltimore outside Tracy’s door. The dancers are smug, well dressed and white. Tracy wants to integrate the show and this puts them on a collision course. This coming of age story pits nasty station manager Velma Van Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) against Tracy’s supportive mom (John Travolta in a fat suit) and record shopkeeper Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) in a civil rights showdown set to song. The drama builds to a conclusion that changes Baltimore and the people living there. Adam Shankman directed Leslie Dixon’s script adapted from an earlier film and stage play.
These are films distinct in approach and reach. What they share are strong performing casts. Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia! is the best actor by far in either movie, and she sings! Julie Walters and Christine Baranski perform exceptionally well as Streep’s mature girlfriends. Brosnan, Firth and Skarsgard nicely portray Sophie’s would-be dads, although none carries a tune very well.
Hairspray features talent at every position: Blonsky offers spunk and grace as Tracy Turnblad. Travolta and Christopher Walken are memorable as her parents, and they dance up a storm. In fact,
Hairspray is distinguished by strong production numbers and songs. This is very much a Broadway musical brought to the screen: The images are sharp and beautiful, the choreography is well staged. All that, plus an exuberant blast at intolerance.
By contrast, Mamma Mia! doesn’t aim as high. A lightweight story provides places to insert ABBA’s pop cupcakes, but not much more. The choreography has a distinct summer camp production feel, as when Meryl Streep waggles her rump during a number with Baranski and Walters. Another vocal interlude, featuring Streep and Pierce Brosnan, seemed clunky and false. That just didn’t
seem to matter to audience members singing along with several of the songs.
Will one of these films linger after the music ends? Yes.
These movie musicals evolved from well known, well regarded stage productions. They offer different pleasures and may not appeal to the same audiences. No question, Mamma Mia! is a hit and a real bon-bon for the many fans of ABBA’s bright-sounding pop music.
That just won’t be enough for audiences seeking stronger production values and content in their movie musicals. All movie fans are glad that movie musicals are back, especially our winner, Hairspray. And you’ll get used to Travolta like that. Really.