Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #25 Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again
Welcome, friends, to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the site-revitalizing column where I give YOU, the kind-hearted, Christ-like, morally perfect Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron an opportunity to choose a movie that I must watch and then write about.
I woke up this morning not knowing what I would write about. Then I checked my Patreon messages and saw that I was now professionally obligated to see the 2018 blockbuster Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again. That seemed like a wonderfully ridiculous way to spend a day so I went over to Amazon and paid fifteen dollars in order to see the glitzy jukebox musical despite not having seen the first film in the Mamma Mia franchise.
I was worried that Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again would be like The Wire. I feared that it was the kind of thing you need to not only watch but really pay close attention to just to be able to understand. My fears were unfounded. It turns out that Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again is not a dense, narratively complex drama.
Instead, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again is basically a film-length version of the crowd-pleasing trope of the film-ending cast sing-and-dance along to an infectious pop tune. Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again wants to know why the cheap, easy buzz of recognition and enjoyment that comes with watching beloved performers enjoy great pop songs in a celebratory environment can’t last all movie long.
Now I could be wrong but I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen a jukebox musical. I’m not entirely sure why. It could be that I’ve always found the concept of reverse-engineering a musical by crafting a hokey narrative around a singer or band’s best-known and most narratively driven songs a little, well, cheesy.
Of course I love cheesy. Cheesy is my jam but for whatever reason Mama Mia! just never seemed terribly appealing to me. I suppose some of it has to do with my annoyance with glossy dramas about beautiful white Americans who travel abroad and have romantic adventures in faraway lands with impossibly beautiful Europeans. I’ve never been a big fan of Goop-style lifestyle porn or postcard travelogue movies, the kind where the scenery matters more than the characters.
Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again is a postcard movie, pure lifestyle porn. It’s pretty much exactly what I expected it to be when I halfheartedly committed myself to never watching it or its predecessor. Yet I found myself very much enjoying it all the same.
Why? Well, this is going to sound strange, even counter-intuitive but I found myself enjoying a flimsy little romp rooted in the public’s deathless, intense love for the music of ABBA because I fucking love the music of ABBA. Of course I do. We all do. All decent human beings and Juggalos love ABBA. Other than enjoying the music of Insane Clown Posse, that’s pretty much what makes us Juggalos.
ABBA made perfect pop songs. You never get tire of hearing pop music that is perfect. ABBA didn’t just create some of the best pop music of the past fifty years: they made people deliriously happy. Even their saddest songs have a weird way of lifting you up and making you feel good in spite of everything.
For the most part I could not care less about the characters in Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again. I could not have been less emotionally invested in their dumb, easily resolvable conflicts or non-existent problems.
The stakes in Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again aren’t just slight. They’re non-existent. Will Sophie Sheridan (Amanda Seyfried) be able to throw together a successful party at the hotel her dead mother Donna (Meryl Streep) left her? Of course she fucking will. Are you kidding me? And will she be able to resolve things with her husband, who wants to take a job in New York? The answer will not surprise you, nor will anything else in Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again.
The hit sequel leaps back and forth between the present and 1979, when Donna (played by Lily James) has just graduated from college with best friends who will grow up to be played by Julie Walters and Christine Baranski. Instead of delivering a traditional valedictory address, Donna, who is something of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl type, instead shocks, confuses and titillates her classmates by singing a lesser known ABBA ditty entitled “When I Kissed the Teacher.”
This song choice raises a lot of questions the film is uninterested in answering. For starters, is Donna involved in an inappropriate sexual or romantic relationship with one of her teachers? If not, then why the hell is she singing such a problematic song? Alternately, why did the filmmakers think kicking things off with such a troubling tune was the way to go?
I don’t know but it ultimately does not matter. Watching an elaborate production number set to an infectious ABBA ditty made me happy in ways that had nothing to do with the characters or dialogue and everything to do with my deep, enduring love of ABBA’s music.
Here’s the thing about ABBA’s music. It’s so good, and so sturdy, and so irresistible that ABBA covers don’t need to be good to be effective and moving. Even the shitty, over-produced, under-sung version of “Knowing Me, Knowing You” found here had me feeling all the feels, in part because just hearing it brought back so many powerful memories of rocking out to ABBA with my fellow ABBA super-fans at the Gathering of the Juggalos a few years back.
Donna is a wild child, a free spirit, a sensual creature irresistible to the many ridiculously attractive men she encounters in her travels. In that respect Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again functions as the jukebox musical equivalent of a superhero origin story for Donna in which we learn just how her romantic life got so adorably mixed-up and over-populated that she did not know which of the three men she’d slept with around the same time was Sophie’s father.
In the contemporary portions of Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, Donna functions something like Poochie from The Simpsons: when she’s not onscreen all the characters are talking about her, and how great she is, and wondering how she would act if she were not so tragically gone despite being pretty much the best human ever during her all too brief, magnificent life.
It’s not easy playing the younger version of a popular choice for the greatest film actress of all time, particularly if you’re playing a character who is pretty much pure joy, laughter and happiness personified. But the radiant, sexy Lily James is up to the task. She has easy, effortless chemistry with the three exceedingly handsome young men playing characters who will grow up to be Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard and an irrepressible lust for life that keeps Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again from ever being particularly melancholy or sad even if it is, on some level, about a young woman dealing with the death of a mother so improbably perfect and magnificent that she overshadows everyone even in her absence. Meryl Streep somehow manages to dominate the movie in the 100 minutes before she shows up as a g-g-ghost. That’s how strong her presence is.
Speaking of iconic presences, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again benefits tremendously from the perfectly cast Christine Baranski and Julie Walters as Streep’s longtime best friends. It doesn’t matter that Christie and Baranski talk in the kinds of witticisms you see embroidered on pillows and disseminated via meme, like, “Do what makes your soul shine” or “I’m beginning to think my soulmate might be carbs!” They’re having a ball and the enjoyment is infectious.
Though it lasts nearly two hours, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again wraps things up with a good half hour to go to make time and space for its true raison d’être: Cher’s much-hyped, much-ballyhooed glorified cameo as Donna’s glamorous mother, who finally decides to embrace grand-motherhood a quarter century into her grand-daughter’s life.
Cher does not “act” in Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again so much as she struts onscreen looking and acting like Lady Gaga’s intimidatingly cool grandmother. Her epic turn here gives audiences what little excuse they need to worship and adore her, to bask in her regal presence. To say that it’s a star turn doesn’t do justice to the film’s worshipful treatment of Cher; she’s more of a goddess.
Just when you think Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again could not get any more wonderfully, ridiculously “extra” the one performer in the Mamma Mia universe more sacrosanct than Sonny Bono’s old duet and comedy partner appears climactically when Meryl Streep shows up as what the patron who suggested the movie referred to as a “Force Ghost.”
She’s not just the perfect woman: she’s the goddamn Obi Wan Kanobi of picturesque musical romantic travelogues. I wrote earlier that Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again is essentially Crowd-Pleasing End Credits Pop Song Sing-Along: The Movie. So it will not surprise anyone to learn that Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again ends with, what else, a crowd-pleasing cast sing-along to a beloved pop song.
But this is no mere crowd-pleasing cast sing-along. No, this is a crowd-pleasing, film-ending cast sing-along with the power to collapse time and bring back the dead, since it finds the movie’s cast, whom, it should be noted, really seem to be enjoying themselves, playfully interacting with the actors and actresses who play their younger and older selfs. Time and death and identity mean nothing compared to the life-affirming joy of a truly transcendent ABBA sing-along.
I love that after pretty much wrapping up its narrative business Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again stops completely, first for the diva entrance of Cher and then for Meryl Streep’s return after a solid 100 minutes or so of all the other characters talking about what a crazily charismatic miracle of a sunbeam she is.
I was hoping at this point that the movie would turn into a crazy clown car of surprise diva appearances, with one legend popping up after another. It would have been nifty, and also keeping in the shameless spirit of the project if Cher and then Streep’s introduction was followed by those of Barbra Streisand, Beyonce, Liza Minnelli, Lady Gaga, Aretha Franklin, Joan Jett, Joni Mitchell and then, why the hell not, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But it is not to be. Even Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again has to stop somewhere, albeit in a place of surreal, delirious and very enjoyable excess.
As a movie to watch Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is a heaping helping of international cheese; as a movie to sing-along to, however, it’s tough to beat.
If you’d like to pick a movie for Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 you can do so over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace or you can pledge any amount of money.