::knocks on door, dusts off furniture, peeks around corner into dark hallway, promptly falls into large hole created by rotten floorboards::
Uh, hi guys? Hi. It’s been a minute. But, you know. Y’all still love me, and probably no one is still reading this anyway, SO. Let’s talk about Mamma Mia! I’ve talked about my love for this stupid movie before. It’s basically the most concentrated dose of joy you can get for less than some price per gram. But watching it recently for the first time in years, I saw it through a different lens than I had before.
Mamma Mia!, a musical based around ABBA’s hits, has the unauspicious designation of basically being responsible for the wave of jukebox musicals currently dominating Broadway. It was massively successful in both New York and the West End, and apparently 40 other countries. None of those traits are …. you know, good. They are not promising. But somehow, whoever wrote this thing managed to sneak some seriously progressive shit under the radar. Not only is it the happiest movie in the world, it’s also an unashamed, unabashed celebration of female sexuality – particularly older female sexuality. Which just makes me love it more. Obviously.
The basic story, strung around 20+ ABBA songs, is that of Donna (Meryl Streep, who has maybe never been more beautiful) and her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried at her most charming). Donna owns a hotel on a Greek island. Sophie is getting married. She doesn’t know who her dad is, but based on a very old diary of Donna’s, she has three guesses, and she’s invited them all to the wedding without telling Donna. Right off the bat – literally, the song about this (“Honey, Honey”) is the second number in the show – we have an opportunity for shittiness and slut-shaming that gets turned on its head. Donna fucked so many dudes the summer she got pregnant that she doesn’t have any idea which of them is the father of her kid, and no one gives a shit – least of all her kid! Sophie’s pissed she doesn’t know who her father is, but she’s not mad about the ho’ing around. It’s not even a thing. And that’s the premise of the entire movie. At no point does anyone, including Donna’s three former paramours (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård), say a word about it – except Donna, briefly, before her friends shut her up.
Donna’s two best friends, Tanya and Rosie, are played with abandon by Christine Baranski and Julie Walters, and let’s take a sec to do a quick check-in on actor ages, because we all know they’re one of my bugaboos. When Mamma Mia! was filmed, Streep was 58, Baranski was 55, Walters was 57, Brosnan was 54, Firth was 47 – a mere babe! – and Skarsgård was 56. All the leads in this film were within 11 years of each other, the youngest actor was a dude, and the oldest was a lady. Take a moment and really let the remarkableness of that sink in, given the landscape. And (spoiler) who winds up together? 58-year-old Meryl Streep and 54-year-old Pierce Brosnan. It’s one of the great joys of Mamma Mia! to see actors playing to their actual ages and romancing their peers.
…. Mostly. Because I gotta say, it’s also a joy to see women in their fifties being portrayed as sexual objects for folks of any age. The high point of that is Christine Baranski’s killer version of “Does Your Mother Know,” sung to the much younger bartender who thinks she’s the hottest thing he’s ever seen and during the performance of which she manages to seduce a beachful of men.
Baranski is a trained singer and dancer, not to mention a consistently magnetic screen presence – I’d personally listen with great interest to Christine Baranski Sings the Alphabet and Dances the Times Tables – and she sells every inch of the number. But just as critical to its reception is the obvious adoration she’s met with by every man who looks at her, all of whom are considerably younger. She’s not just sexual, she’s powerful. Watching her is a rush.
But as a viewer, I think the biggest rush comes from the staging of “Dancing Queen,” which is a surprisingly empowering son as it turns out! (At least, surprising if you never thought about the lyrics, which I never had.) “Dancing Queen” is something of a love song to a young girl who’s coming into her own and playing with her sexual power (“You’ve come to look for a king / Anybody could be that guy ), but is ultimately more interested in her own good time. The protagonist in “Dancing Queen” isn’t anyone’s object except her own, and for that, the song celebrates her.
So. Rosie and Tanya start singing it to Donna to cheer her up, but it very quickly becomes more than a bonding moment between three friends.
At 1:50 they bound into the courtyard of Donna’s hotel, where a bunch of locals are helping with the preparations for Sophie’s wedding, and as they dance towards the waterfront they rapidly collect a following of women of all ages, singing, dancing and leaping with them in an expression of pure joy. There’s one moment in particular that stands out. At 1:55, a young woman watches them pass through the courtyard with naked longing on her face – seriously, whoever that chick is, she’s doing some serious face acting – and the moment she runs to join the growing mob feels like a triumph. At the end of the number, when all the girls and women in the village are dancing on the dock with Donna, Tanya and Rosie, they point outwards, singing, “You can dance, you can jive,” and it’s hard not to feel that they’re singing to you, the viewer. It’s hard not to feel buoyed by their joy.
“Dancing Queen” manages to be both a celebration of women as powerful, sexual beings (just watch Streep during the second verse, but particularly “Looking out for another / Anyone will do”); a statement of ownership of that identity; and an assertion that it’s only one part of what it means to be a woman. I’m not one for sisterhood pretty much ever, and I’m certainly not one for dancing, but when Meryl Streep calls me the dancing queen, I almost believe her. I definitely want to be on that dock with her.
There are a thousand other things to love about Mamma Mia! There’s Amanda Bynes’ sweet, high soprano and ebullient performance. There’s the total focus with which Pierce Brosnan bravely tries to sing (and even hits the right notes, more or less), an attempt which three different film reviewers independently compared to three different animals. There’s the electric chemistry between Streep and Bynes as mother and daughter, whose relationship felt deeply familiar to me as a young woman whose mom is her best friend, and their devastatingly beautiful rendition of “Slipping Through My Fingers.” (Guys. Major, major tearjerker warning on that. I underestimated how much it would make me cry even having seen it already and legit found myself pushing down sobs on an airplane. It wasn’t classy.) But for me, the selling point is the joy it finds in 50-year-old women. How many movies can you say that about?