Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays: ABBA

Greetings pop pickers and welcome to this week’s Fabulously Flamboyant Friday, our weekly tribute to the rainbow and glitter world of music produced by artistes who are simply fabulous darling.

This week we’ll be travelling back in time (not far – about a decade and a half) to take an oestrogen-drenched look at one of the most hideously kitsch ‘n’ camp cinematic experiences of my life. A night of blood chilling terror that left me psychologically drained and emotionally scarred. The fabulous flamboyance was off the scale, Ed Wood was turning in his grave and members of the Village People were in my head screaming at me to “man the **** up!” Oh yes indeedy – I went to see Mamma Mia! The Movie.

“But Ivor, you devilishly handsome, foolishly brave and staggeringly modest, silver-tongued scribe” I hear you gasp, “what on earth possessed you to attend such a hideous spectacle?” It’s a very good question; thank you for asking. On its release back in 2008 the reviews of this movie were mostly terrible, with some critics giving it a proper kicking. As a result, I had absolutely no intention of putting myself through the same suffering as those brave and noble chaps who had already sacrificed themselves, risking their sanity by watching this cinematic monstrosity and reporting back to we lesser mortals. It’s rumoured the SAS still make potential recruits watch this film, and AWS was almost certainly there on an early training exercise. My mind was made up – I was not going to see Mamma Mia!

Sadly, Lady Cutlery had other ideas. I had selected the films for our last few visits to the cinema, so unfortunately it was her turn to choose. Sensing a trap, I rolled out the excuses: it was time for a girls night out, I’d been selfishly monopolizing her time, I needed to catalogue my beer mat collection, the cat’s anal polyps needed draining – that sort of thing. But it was no use. Lady Cutlery played her trump card: “I went to that Morrissey concert with you”. It might actually have been Skindred or Tool that she invoked, but the point is the same and the argument was lost. I was going to see Mamma Mia!

For those of you who’ve been lucky enough to avoid this filum, the plot need not detain us long. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is getting married and wishes to know who her father is. Accordingly, she invites to her wedding three chaps who were giving her mum (Meryl Street) a good seeing to at the appropriate time. The chaps agree to attend and travel to the Greek island where Sophie’s mum lives, and here Sophie tries to uncover the truth about her lineage. The three candidates for pater are Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Harry (Colin Firth), and Bill (Stellan Skarsgard). And that’s about it as far as the plot goes. Why she didn’t get one of those home DNA test kits is beyond me, but there you go.

I should probably make my position clear: I think this is a terrible film. Not because it’s camp and kitsch, but because it is badly written, poorly directed, with terrible cinematography, clunky choreography and some shockingly wooden performances. It is saved by two things: some of the cast are clearly having the time of their lives and, of course, it does have the hits of ABBA – an astonishing body of work – to prop it up.

And we should probably give ABBA a bit of a mention here. After all, their songs are the only reason this horrid movie exists. I’m assuming they need no introduction to most, but for anyone living under a rock since the 1970s, ABBA are amongst the best-selling music artists in history, with record sales estimated to be somewhere in the region of 300 million worldwide. They’ve shipped almost 12 million singles in the UK alone, they are the most commercially successful band mainland Europe has ever produced and at the height of their powers they achieved an impressive 8 consecutive number one albums in the UK – the same number as Led Zeppelin, who couldn’t equal the mighty ABBA as Led Zep failed do it consecutively. The ABBA songbook is one of the most impressive in the business and it’s the backbone of this movie.

Surprisingly, given the top notch material they had to work with, the musical numbers are almost all dull, awkward and stiffly staged. The director, Phyllida Lloyd, was primarily a theatre director and at times this really shows. Many of the numbers feel as if the director has forgotten she’s not creating a stage production, and the result is a surprisingly flat, lifeless and dull production – and believe me, this is quite an achievement given most of the cast seem to behave as if they’ve just gone cold turkey from a serious Ritalin addiction.

You will notice most of the videos featured in this article are original ABBA performances rather than film versions. This is quite deliberate. Most of the versions performed in the film are pretty dire, with Pierce Brosnan being by far the worst culprit; and when vastly superior original versions are available, versions far more suitable for our fabulous Friday slot, I see no reason to make you suffer too much in the way of cruel and unusual punishment (but ya gonna get some anyway…).

Supporters of the film will argue (and many did at the time) that Mamma Mia! is simply a light-hearted feel-good movie – a comforting watch with a ridiculous story that is essentially irrelevant. This film isn’t about plot, they will say, it’s about a passion for life; it’s about love, family, friendship, singing, dancing and seizing the moment. It’s a big ol’ dollop of pure escapism that delivers as expected – nothing more, nothing less. However, from my point of view, this feels somewhat disingenuous. Mamma Mia! is not the movie it could and should have been. It’s awkward, amateur, unfocused and at times strangely unpleasant – with the Sophie character in particular being a thoroughly dislikable spoilt brat. This movie is not fun or joyful or carefree. It’s a cheap, shoddy, tacky series of tired clichés and awkward contrivances, artlessly forced together to achieve very little except a very poor cinematic experience.

But why, I hear you ask, was watching this movie such a traumatic experience? After all, it was simply a bad film. Not a particularly enjoyable experience, but we’ve all sat through them before now and we’ll probably do so again. Well, dear reader, I can assure you my torment was real, because this was not simply a stinker you could sit through.  Oh, no. You see this was no ordinary screening; this was a special screening. I had unwittingly walked into a special edition audience participation screening, with full sing-along lyrics emblazoned on the screen and a seemingly endless supply of cheap fizz to fuel the already exuberant ladies who were fired up and ready to rock. It was two hours long, full participation would prove to be compulsory and there was absolutely no escape.

Well the next couple of hours were hell. The audience (the vast majority being ladies of a certain age, ably supported by a substantial sprinkling of fabulously flamboyant gentlemen) danced and sang and howled their approval with untrammelled abandon. They waved their arms in the air, they danced in their seats, they danced in the aisles, they danced around their handbags, they danced everywhere. Unwilling husbands, boyfriends and partners were dragged from their seats and forced to participate. Any who tried to demur were howled down, ridiculed, humiliated, berated, until eventually they too were forced to perform like barking, clapping seals. Every now and then I would catch the eye of some poor husband or partner, as trapped as I. We would exchange a brief, grim, haunted look of the damned, before being swept away once more by the effusive tide of exaltation and overwhelming exuberance. And it seemed eternal, as if our anguish would never cease. Hit after hit, song after song, dance after dance; the soul-sucking misery just went on and on and on – an endless nightmare, a danse macabre.

Eventually, of course, our torment was over; the credits rolled and we could breathe again. As we shuffled out, forlornly sluiced from the theatre by the ebbing tide of our still singing and dancing ladies, I exchanged slight nods and subdued glances of acknowledgment with my fellow victims. Words were not necessary, our bonds of kinship we real, they had been forged in pain: we were brothers in adversity. Some, I’m sure, sought counselling. I buried my pain, suppressed the trauma and moved on. I’ve never seen the sequel, Mamma Mia – Here We Go Again, and I never will. A third instalment is rumoured, and that too will pass me by. I’ve done my time. I’m never going back.

In truth, Mamma Mia is not really a film, it’s simply an excuse. An excuse to construct a cinematic jukebox that exploits a feel-good playlist of truly great pop songs. Viewed from that perspective, I suppose it achieves all that it sets out to do. And if we accept that argument, then I suppose I have no right to poke fun at this movie. After all, this article serves exactly the same purpose.

Anyway, that’s yer lot for this week’s traumatically herring and meatball flavoured episode of Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays. TTFN Puffins. Sleep tight and don’t let the nightmares bite – not ‘arf!

Featured Image: Bert Verhoeff for Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

© Ivory Cutlery 2023