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“So I got to make the song cry”

Abba's video for "The Winner Takes it All" works where Mamma Mia doesn't because of the tremendous blankness of the singers. I had no desire to see Mamma Mia! which in a way is odd as I like both Abba and musicals. But a friend prevailed on me to see it last week, and it turns out my initial instincts were correct; it’s not a very good film. Indeed, being a musical and using Abba songs are precisely where the film doesn’t work.

All the reviews I’ve seen have mentioned Pierce Brosnan’s terrible singing, but I haven’t seen  much criticism of Meryl Streep’s performance, which is much worse, and also does more to explain what’s wrong with the film.The problem with her acting in the film is precisely that it is acting, or rather Acting with a capital A, an emoting that suggests that the only way of conveying emotion is through mimesis.

Watching Mamma Mia made me think about what it is I like about Abba. Two common responses to the band are the deflationary one, to say they are “just a great pop group” (or a guilty pleasure); and the inverse, to reject the idea that Abba were a superficial pop group and emphasize the emotional depth of their songs. Neither of these responses is quite right, because it’s the pop elements, the glossy artifice of production, that give Abba their emotional charge. So much of the emotion resides in the carefully constructed production, while the voice, far from expressing emotion, is strangely blank; the effect is to produce an externalization of emotion, a sense that the music carries the emotion for the singer, perhaps because these emotions are so powerful that the only way to deal with them is to, as Jay-Z puts it, make the song cry.

Something rather similar is true of musicals: if the songs don’t manage to convey something that a mere representation would not, what’s the point of including them. Which is the problem with Mamma Mia. The role of the songs in the film is strangely peripheral, like the Arctic Monkey’s songs (or whatever) shoe-horned in to the latest terrible Channel 4 drama. This has an interesting consequence: because so much time is spent on karaoke that adds little or nothing to the film, there’s no time for any dramatic arc and, consequently, no possibility of catharsis. The most striking thing about the film is the way in which it desparately demands that the audience respond emotionally to it; yet, Mamma Mia is structured throughout to prevent any actual emotional involvement.