One of the great joys in watching a new Meryl movie every week is seeing her take chances not just on daring projects and unique characters, but on new genres. So many actors unfortunately get typecast in certain kinds of movies—think Hugh Grant or Cameron Diaz in romantic comedies—but Meryl continues to surprise with her genre choices. While drama is her number one genre of choice, she has not shied away from comedies, Defending Your Life, Death Becomes Her, and The Devil Wears Prada being three of her best movies ever. In addition, she has appeared in a suspense film (Still of the Night), an action movie (The River Wild), a children’s film (Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events), animated movies (The Ant Bully and Fantastic Mr. Box), and a western (The Homesman).
One of the last major genres she hadn’t tackled before 2008 was the musical, which was odd given her beautiful singing voice. Meryl memorably sang in Ironweed, Death Becomes Her, and A Prairie Home Companion but had never led an all-star musical. It was bound to happen sooner or later, and Mamma Mia, based on the award-winning musical that premiered in London in 1999 and went on to be one of Broadway’s longest running hits, turned out to be the one that called her name. Meryl saw the musical in New York a few weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks and wrote a letter to the show’s producers telling them how thankful she was for their bringing much-needed happiness to theatergoers. Phyllida Lloyd, who directed the stage-show and was chosen to also direct the film version, never forgot about that letter; her first and only choice for Donna in the movie was Meryl.
It would have been understandable for Meryl to say no to this project. Not only is this the kind of lightweight entertainment she hadn’t pursued in a few years but pulling off a movie musical is difficult—for every Chicago, there’s Rent and The Producers—and singing ABBA songs, as any member in the cast can attest to, can be a challenge. But when asked, Meryl was shocked that she was even considered, and she agreed to star in the film without a moment’s hesitation. She reportedly was never allowed to sing in her house around her son and daughters, so she decided she’d get her mini-revenge by leading a movie musical. Of course, the exotic location, amazing ensemble cast, catchy songs, and simple, engaging story also had something to do with her decision.
Mamma Mia tells of twenty-year-old Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), a young woman living in Greece who is about to marry her equally young Prince Charming named Sky (Dominic Cooper). Before her big day arrives, however, she sends out three letters to her three potential dads, men her mother dated one eventful summer. They all unexpectedly show up, to Sophie’s great joy, and her mother Donna’s consternation. As the wedding ceremony draws near, Sophie questions if she wants to get married at all, and Donna wonders if she still has the capacity to fall in love again. This original story, written by Catherine Johnson for both the stage version and the film version, plays out with more than a dozen ABBA songs that fit seamlessly into the plot.
Well maybe not all seamlessly, but most. Viewed in the right frame of mind, Mamma Mia is grand entertainment from beginning to end, a movie that exists for no other reason to make the viewer smile and feel good. While at times the cinematography feels a little too phony and glossy—much of the film was shot on the Pinewood Studios soundstages—and while there are a couple musical numbers that slow down the film’s pacing—as fun as “Does Your Mother Know” is, removing it would not affect the plot in any way—for the most part this movie works. There’s one more key flaw—more on that in a moment—but overall, the film is loads of fun, with one delightful song after another (“Honey, Honey” and “Dancing Queen” are two of the best) and lots of great actors clearly having a blast on-screen and not taking the cheesy story too seriously.
Pierce Brosnan reportedly signed onto the movie not even knowing what it was—only that it was being shot in Greece and that Meryl was the lead. At this point in her career, Meryl had the power to attract terrific actors the world over to movies she was attached to, and Mamma Mia was no different. Playing Donna’s best friends, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters were perfectly chosen, making the life-long friendships between the three women believable; Walters is especially a hoot in the most comedic role in the movie. Amanda Seyfried is luminous, and Dominic Cooper is at his most handsome and charming. Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard joined Brosnan as Sophie’s potential fathers, and all three actors brought welcome qualities to their roles, with Firth at his most confused and Skarsgard at his silliest. Brosnan is fine in his most high-profile role since he retired from the James Bond series, but the other huge flaw in the movie is his godawful singing voice, which is so bad that any emotion meant to be stirred up in the film’s sappy conclusion is tempered. While one has to give Brosnan credit for really going for it—his Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress is undeserved—it’s wise to assume he won’t be singing on-screen anytime soon.
Meryl had played such dour and reserved characters in her previous movies, like in Rendition and Lions for Lambs, and even The Devil Wears Prada to some extent, so to watch her be sexy and kid-like and totally uninhibited in Mamma Mia is a great pleasure for any Meryl fan. This was one of her most physically demanding roles since The River Wild, so much so that the then fifty-eight-year-old had to train for three weeks to get in proper shape—climbing a tall ladder while singing ABBA’s “Mamma Mia” takes a little stamina—and her exuberance really comes through, particularly in her early scenes when she’s dancing through the streets and doing cannonballs off piers. Meryl, in a Golden Globe-nominated performance, is absorbing in a central role that could have played one-note in the hands of a different actress. Despite the emphasis on entertaining musical numbers over moments of subtlety and character realizations, Meryl always finds time for genuine emotion, even when it’s just a quick look at Brosnan or a glimpse at Seyfried in the mirror.
But the greatest thrill of all in watching Mamma Mia is to finally hear Meryl belt out not just a couple of songs, which audience members had been privileged to hear in a few of her previous movies, but multiple ones, each with its own tempo and flavor. It’s a little weird to watch Academy Award winner Meryl Streep sliding down a bannister and singing the silly but infectious “Dancing Queen,” and she’s unfortunately not given much help by Brosnan in the strained version of “S.O.S.” Her best songs are “Mamma Mia,” “Slipping Through My Fingers,” and her big, emotional showstopper, “The Winner Takes It All,” which allows her to just sing, without choreography, without any bells and whistles. If anything can prove that Meryl could record her own album and be taken seriously as a singer, it’s her goosebumps-raising rendition of “The Winner Takes It All.”
Mamma Mia opened on July 18, 2008, the same day as The Dark Knight, acting as the perfect counterprogramming to the Christopher Nolan juggernaut. Mamma Mia, while only making peanuts that weekend compared to the giant haul The Dark Knight pulled in, turned into a true blockbuster all its own, quickly besting The Devil Wears Prada’s stupendous box office take with 144 million nationwide and an astonishing 610 million worldwide. Given that Meryl doesn’t star in a Marvel movie (she did tell Jimmy Kimmel that she wouldn’t not consider being in a superhero movie), Mamma Mia will likely stand as her all-time highest grosser. And after having made four disappointing bombs in a row, this musical, her only until 2014’s Into the Woods, proved that Meryl was back on track.