Mama Mia’s particular hotchpotch of themes and genres and its rapturous reception (fastest selling DVD evahhh!!!) tells us something about the dismal state of culture circa 2008. Swedish pop meets Bollywood in Greece, with an Anglo American cast. It’s supposed to be a highly-coloured, undeniable confection, but is in reality an unappetising dog’s dinner composed of baklava, kulfi, salted herring and candyfloss. With extra side orders of corn and cheese.
What’s awful about much of it has been anatomised elsewhere; the greatest of its sins is not just its fundamental misuse/misunderstanding of Abba’s body of work, but the terrible clumsiness with which certain songs are shoehorned into the narrative conceits. Here, for example, When all is said and done accompanies the marriage scene (but not, gasp! the one you expected!). Slipping through my fingers makes no sense, in context, from its opening line “Schoolbag in hand she leaves home in the early morning”. It is kind of a song about loss and daughters, but is rather more a meditation, as much of Abba is, on the collision of fantasy and reality, on the ungraspability of experience, the half awful/half joyful evanescence of it all. Mama Mia forgets the half-awful part. It would take only the most cursory of sing-a-longs to Waterloo, a song that characterizes love as a catastrophic defeat to realise that there is a deeply perverse core to Abba. Mama Mia just turns a blind eye to the songs themselves. They’re there in the broadest possible terms, (a song about wanting a man/a song about falling in love etc) to the extent that the whole project, transplanting watchful Scandinavian pessimism into a Place In the Sun aspirational Greece does no justice whatsoever to the music it purports to celebrate
But hey, none of that matters because the point remains that if Meryl Streep, (I mean she’s got Oscars and stuff) is prepared to make an utter twat of herself skipping along a mountainside in dungarees, and Pierce Brosnan will gamely have-a-go, bellowing his way like a gut shot water buffalo with sinusitis through the aforementioned When all is said, then who are we, the mere spectator, to churlishly refuse to surrender to it all. Nothing perhaps is viewed with more suspicion than your inability to just have a good time. Especially when everyone else is. But then there’s an especially brittle phoniness to the British attempt to be unselfconscious. Mama Mia’s determination to be a bit of harmless fun, its determination to overwhelm your critical faculties with its ceaseless outpouring of emotion and excitement gives it a certain aggravating passive-aggressive quality. A part of its strategy is just to embarrass you so much that after an hour or so you’ll have been so thoroughly bludgeoned that you kind of give up hope and just wearily assent. One of those people who insist on dragging you up out of your chair to dance despite the vehemence of your protest and manifest discomfort, because they think that finally they're actually doing you a favour. While it’s not quite as desperate to distract you from its own ramshackle mediocrity as Baz Luhrmann’s hyperactive farrago Moulin Rouge (I’d rather have Brosnan try Song To the Siren than I would hear Ewan McGregor flex his tonsils again) it falls desperately short of the kind of swimmingly exuberant overflow of colour and sentiment that Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding attained, despite ripping off its rain soaked finale.
In X-Factor Britain, we’re all just a step away from celebrity and there is no higher accomplishment than being able to y’know, sing and dance. These capacities, along with that elusive X-factor, detectable only by those of truly heightened sensibilities such as Simon Cowell and Sheryl Cole are your tickets out of the most degrading of all personal situations, anonymity. Mama Mia with its I-can-do-better-than-that pseudo-democratization of enticing blandness plugs right into the notion that the distance between you, in your bedsit and the supremely nondescript young couple in the movie is wafer thin. So close I’m practically already there. And mum and dad, you can be funky and passionate too. Your children will not view you with contempt and scorn, we can all live together in the great intergenerational Karaoke booth that is (or at least was) Britain Inc circa 2008. And what’s wrong with a bit of harmless escapism? After all it’s not like anyone has the capacity to change anything! It’s weirdly fitting that as the disparity between rich and poor increases to unprecedented levels and class mobility disappears Bollywood becomes the model for Brit Feelgood. I’ve yet to see Slumdog Millionaire but given it’s by Danny Boyle, my least favourite British filmmaker of all time, and knowing the concept I don’t hold out much hope. (It has of course been sold out all over town).
But then again I take things too seriously, don’t I?