Love or loathe Abba – and the longer we live the fewer there are who need to be won over – it’s impossible not to like this great big, warm-hearted, funny, touching and occasionally silly movie. Like the clothes Abba once wore it’s OTT and, like the original film, it’s a feast of colour and attractive people, all of them cavorting about in sunny, picturesque locations where everyone has a habit of joyously bursting into song and waving their arms about as another Abba classic is performed by cast members, not always with the same skill as Agnetha and Frida but with enthusiasm and knowing smiles that more than make up for any shortcomings in their vocal attributes.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is, like Godfather II, a shifting prequel and sequel to the 2008 film but unlike Godfather II no one avenges family honour by arranging a violent death. Tears and heartbreak, misfortune and indignity are smoothed away with an Abba song, 16 in total, a few of which are reprised from the earlier film – how could you not include 'Dancing Queen'? – though many are album tracks uncollected on either Gold or More Gold and therefore not quite so well known. Part of the fun, as before, is guessing when they’re about to arrive through slightly oblique turns in the story and appropriate bits of dialogue.
It has to be said that those unfamiliar with the plot of the original film – a girl’s quest to identify her father from among her mother’s three boyfriends – might take a while to cotton on to what’s happening here. Lily James plays young Donna, the role played by Meryl Streep in the original film, and her story not only takes up most of the screen time but also packs the emotional punch. We meet her at her graduation ceremony – cue for ‘When I Kissed The Teacher’ – after which for reasons unexplained she heads for Greece via Paris where she meets the first of her three lovers, to be followed in quick succession by two more on the island of Kalokairi.
The scenarios in which Donna falls into bed with these three personable young men – all of whom appear youthful in the past and mature in the present – are developed and explained at some length, and while it might not be unreasonable to assume that a girl who shags three blokes, one after the other within what is probably no more than a month at most, is asking for stern censure from moralists, Lilly plays Donna as so damned kind-hearted and lovely, with a smile that could rouse the dead, that we just accept it and forgive such unseemly indiscretions, completely reasonable behaviour in fact.
Intercut between the scenes of young Donna’s dalliances is the present day story of how Sophie, her daughter, now in her twenties, is refurbishing the holiday hotel on Kalokairi that she has inherited from her mother, presumed dead. She is joined there by her mother’s two best pals, played, as before, by Julie Walters and Christine Baranski, both of whom we meet as their younger selves in the Lily James scenes, and who between them contribute the lion’s share of the film’s laughs. A grand re-opening is planned and all looks to be going well until a fierce storm ravages the island, wrecking all the preparations, just as, coincidentally, a fierce storm on the island long ago complicated Donna’s plans. Still, help is on hand when two of her three fathers decide to fly there despite having previously declined to attend – the third already lives nearby – and along the way pick up a retinue of local guests who all arrive by boat and give us a rousing performance of ‘Dancing Queen’, Abba's masterpiece, which actually seemed to me less important than the pleasantly ambient Abba music heard in the background throughout the entire film. The surprise guest at the grand party is Sophie’s grandmother, played imperiously by Cher, who resembles an alabaster statue with her flawless skin and blonde wig.
Despite a bit of will he, won’t he earlier, Sophie’s boyfriend also decides to come over for the party and, on the night or just before, Sophie discovers she is pregnant, much to his delight. The hotel opening is, naturally, a huge success, enlivened of course by song and dance. Cher discovers that the hotel’s manager is an old flame called – wait for it – Fernando, and serenades him appropriately. Finally, the film closes nine months later with the christening of Sophie’s baby, the scene intercut with – concentrate now – Donna, ie Lily, bringing her baby, ie Sophie, to the same chapel twenty-odd years earlier, their intermingling faces reflected poignantly in the font. With the tugging of the heart-strings now reaching breaking point who should arrive but the ghost of her mother, Meryl Streep making a brief cameo at the end, singing ‘My Love My Life’ though we are left to assume that only the cinema audience can actually see her. The whole wonderfully happy business ends with the christening party where Cher sings ‘Super Trooper’ in a key a few semitones lower than the original.
Lily James as Donna
All of which sounds like a very frothy confection indeed but I expected no less and came away delighted with what I’d seen. There are many funny asides that I won’t dwell on here and Lily James, who sings and dances beautifully, walks away with the honours. Then again, everyone involved plays their parts to perfection and there’s even brief cameo appearances by Björn and Benny, the former as a university don and the latter as a pianist in a restaurant.
I laughed a lot while the film was playing and even reached for my handkerchief once or twice, and as the credits rolled while Cher belted out ‘Super Trooper’ I was reminded of a paragraph that my friend Carl Magnus Palm wrote in Bright Lights Dark Shadows, the Abba biography that I commissioned for Omnibus Press in 2000 which went a long way towards sealing my admiration for Abba and their music.
At the end of the chapter immediately before the one that deals with Abba’s revival in the Nineties, Magnus wrote: “Perhaps as a reaction to the cold chill that swept not just across Sweden but across the entire western world, there appeared on the horizon at the beginning of the Nineties a nostalgic yearning for the more colourful and carefree Seventies. Who better to spearhead this celebration than the most popular recording artists of that decade, the group whose wild costumes epitomised the fun and the fearlessness of Seventies fashion, and whose music reached out to absolutely everyone, majorities and minorities alike?”
This week I read that the UK might have to bring in emergency food rations and medical supplies as a result of the disastrous Brexit vote, and a couple of weeks ago I was among the thousands who marched against the policies of America’s unspeakable President. Abba can’t stop all this but watching Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again this afternoon at least made me forgot about it all for two hours. Try it.