::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!
A musical built around ABBA’s hits, Mamma Mia! has the inauspicious designation of being more or less responsible for the wave of jukebox musicals currently dominating Broadway. It was a massive success onstage in both New York and London’s West End (and, apparently, 40 other countries). That isn’t usually a sign that the property in question is particularly interesting or transgressive (though Hamilton is doing its damnedest to prove that opinion wrong), but whoever wrote this thing managed to sneak some seriously progressive shit under the radar. Not only is the film adaptation the happiest movie in the world, it’s also an unashamed and 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 – the song setting this scene (“Honey, Honey”) is the second number in the show – we have an opportunity for shittiness and slut-shaming get 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, her kid least of all. Sophie’s pissed she doesn’t know who her father is, but she’s not mad about the ho’ing around that created the confusion. 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, because everyone is in agreement that she’s being silly.
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. That’s best illustrated by 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 watch Christine Baranski Sings the Alphabet and Dances the Times Tables with great interest – 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.” 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, transforming instead into a rallying cry of sexual power and ownership for all the women in the village. (Follow along in the video.) At 1:50, Rosie, Tanya, and Donna bound into the courtyard of Donna’s hotel, where a bunch of locals are helping with the preparations for Sophie’s wedding. As they dance towards the waterfront they rapidly collect a following of women of all ages, singing, dancing and leaping along with them, their faces confident and joyful. Take particular note of Streep during the second verse, especially her body language on, “Looking out for another / Anyone will do.” 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 when 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 and they point outwards, singing, “You can dance, you can jive,” 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 a celebration of women as powerful, sexual beings; 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.” (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 best selling point is the joy it finds in 50+-year-old women and the delight in takes in their sexual power. How many movies can you say that about?