All her life, 20-year-old Sophie has lived with her single mom, Donna, in their little hotel on an idyllic Greek island. For most of that time, though, she’s secretly longed to find the father she’s never known. A man that her former hippie mom refuses to talk about.
When Sophie happens upon Mom’s diary, she finds clues that point to three lovers from her free-spirit past. So, since Sophie is about to be married, she invites all three men to her wedding—feeling that surely she’ll know the one the moment she lays eyes on him.
Donna has also invited a couple of people to the festivities—her two lifelong friends and former bandmates Tanya and Rosie. They arrive with drinks in hand ready to recapture some of their wild and crazy past as Donna and the Dynamos. But you can think of them as just color. Because the remainder of the movie revolves around Sophie trying to decide which of the potential dads will walk her down the aisle and Donna plotting how to goosestep them out the back door.
Old romance is rekindled, nuptials fast approach and chaotic, musical mayhem ensues. Mamma Mia! What a wedding!
Sophie earnestly wants to find the father she never had. She longs for some connection, if only for one symbolic walk down the aisle. She says, “I feel like a part of me was missing and when I meet my dad everything will fall into place.” (Sadly, Sophie’s fiancé, Sky, her mom and eventually even the movie itself all point out that she’s silly for trying.)
Each of the men who show up behave as gentlemen and take Sophie, briefly, under their wings for a fatherly moment. She thrives under the attention.
Despite their struggles over and during the wedding, it’s obvious that Donna earnestly loves her daughter and believes her to be the greatest gift in her life.
Sophie’s wedding is set in a small Greek church with a cross on the front wall. An elderly Greek gent crosses himself in church. Throughout the musical, island citizens join in as a “Greek Chorus.” A quick shot at the end of the picture shows this group sitting on a heavenly cloud. Donna looks skyward and intones, “Somebody up there has got it in for me.”
We’re spared the visuals, but all the activities in the story are based on three sexual trysts that Donna had in the course of a couple weeks, 21 years prior. Sophie reads aloud from her mother’s diary and helps paint the bed-hopping picture (over which her girlfriends joyfully squeal).
Sexuality and sexual wordplay are a large part of the present, too. Donna and her bawdy gal pals, for example, are repeatedly referring to and using inanimate objects (such as a power drill and a door knob) to symbolize Donna’s need to “get some.” Tanya, in particular, is presented to be something like Sex and the City‘s Samantha. They reference her repeated marriages, breast enhancements and g-string panties; and she’s later hit on by a guy about a third her age. When she has a song with this teenage-looking boy who’s obviously attracted to her, she slides to her knees in front of him (but out of the camera’s view), leaving her hand on his chest. It’s a trick to make audiences think she’s performing oral sex on him. (And his expression helps.) When she gets up, though, we see that she’s really just tied a towel around him like a diaper and we realize that the song is about her essentially telling him he’s too young for her.
Tail shakes, leg spreads, crotch grabs and pelvic thrusts in the choreography also speak their own kind of sexual language. The Greek island environment supports lots of low-cut, midriff-baring outfits and swimsuits on the girls. And the guys from Sky’s bachelor party all run and dance about with bare chests. Bill, one of Donna’s former lovers, turns around in a towel and reveals his naked backside.
Sophie and Sky kiss on several occasions. When Sophie tells her friends that she has a secret, they automatically assume she’s pregnant.
It’s pointed out late in the film that another of Donna’s former flames is now gay. “She was the first woman I ever loved … and the last woman I ever loved,” he says. Later he’s shown, shirtless, embracing an equally bare-chested Greek man.
Donna falls through a trap door and lands on a mattress. Rosie feels the burn when sliding down a banister railing.
God’s name is misused a dozen and a half times or so. “Frickin'” stands in for the f-word. And the British crudities “b-gger,” “s-dding” and “b-llocks” are spoken once apiece.
Wine, beer, Mai Tais and other umbrella-topped alcoholic concoctions flow freely through the movie’s partying scenes. Donna and her friends are often downing something. Rosie opens a proffered beer with her teeth before swigging it back. The older ladies get tipsy a couple times, and Tanya and a young friend of Sophie’s are both shown severely hung over. Tanya offers a depressed Donna some sort of prescription drug; Rosie downs the pill instead.
Sky grabs a cigar as a prop for his bachelor celebrations, but we never see him light it.
Donna laments, “I brought this all on myself because I was a stupid, reckless little slut.” But her friends pooh-pooh that as the unreasonable morality of her mother talking. It’s mentioned that Sophie is like her and Donna replies, “If she were more like me, she wouldn’t be getting married at 20. Rosie adds, “Or marrying at all.”
[Spoiler Warning] Following through on that last thought—in the big twist at the movie’s end—Sophie decides that marrying Sky isn’t necessary. The two will simply live together and travel the world.
Inspired and enhanced by a passel of bouncy ABBA tunes, Mamma Mia! played as a stage musical in more than 160 cities, motivating over 30 million people to sing along with old favorites and, in some cases, even dance in the aisles. I was one of the former, working hard to keep my toes clear of the latter.
One thing I noticed with the live production, though, that’s even more true with the big-screen version is that you can’t really think too hard about what the show is saying and still enjoy it. There are way too many problems for that. Mamma wants you to simply sway along with the frothy fun and marvel at how the nostalgic and infectious music is cleverly stitched into the emotional drama.
Helping you down that path, director Phyllida Lloyd, who also helmed the stage version, does a good job translating her creation to celluloid—buoying the tale with a broad musical theater feel, chipper choreography and lots of Greek chorus backups to flesh out the sound. Amanda Seyfried (as Sophie) is the film’s shining star, practically glowing in the early going as she seeks out her dad. Even Meryl Streep (playing Donna) is surprisingly good at giving her songs all the physical and vocal pizzazz that you’d expect from a Broadway lead.
Here’s where we get back to that thinking part, though. Sure, there are your typical musical theater holes in the story logic, but this goes deeper than that. What starts as a young girl’s longing for a family she’s never known, ends up being a jaded lecture on how conventional families, wisdom and morality are all just downright silly and antiquated concepts.
Older women need not mature and learn from their mistakes, just party-hearty and strut your stuff, Mamma Mia! maintains. Poor moral choices don’t really have consequences. That’s your mother talking. It all works out in the end. Whatever your particular sexual bent or gut-centered desire, go for it. If you wanna shack up and sail away instead of saying “I do” and “I will,” well, just do it. We’ll all strip off our shirts, sing and dance, follow our hearts and it’ll be A-OK. (Or maybe that’s ABBA-OK.)
You might not notice or care about the implications of that kind of worldview while in a “Dancing Queen” trance. But you will the second you stop and think about it.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.