Brow Beat

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again Shows Plenty of ABBA Songs Are As Good As Gold

There’s more to the group than their greatest hits.

A collage of a still from Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again and a photo of Abba.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Universal Pictures; Kaiketsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Released in 1992, almost a decade after the group called it a day, the 19-track ABBA collection Gold: Greatest Hits made a powerful case for the group as one of pop music’s all-time bests. It arrived at a point when that case needed to be made. Post breakup, the Swedish hit-makers were often sneered at as a relic of another era, but Gold helped turn that around, spearheading a ’90s revival that culminated in the jukebox musical Mamma Mia!, which premiered in London in 1999 and is doubtlessly playing in front of an appreciative audience somewhere in the world as you read this.

When it was adapted as a 2008 movie starring Meryl Streep as Donna, a woman unsure which of three past suitors fathered her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), 15 of the film’s 21 songs come from Gold. That left just four of the group’s best-known hits untouched. (Three if you count a deleted scene featuring “The Name of the Game.”) That creates an obvious issue for a sequel. How do you make a jukebox musical when you’ve already played the most popular songs on the jukebox?

The new Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again tries a few approaches to get around the problem. It can’t resist reprising a few songs—what’s a Mamma Mia! movie without “Mamma Mia”?—but it reworks their presentation, giving them to different characters. “Waterloo,” for instance, which was relegated to a closing credits goof in the first Mamma Mia!, becomes an elaborate musical number in a French restaurant, baguettes and all. (One way in which Here We Go Again improves on its predecessor: Where the original staged its musical numbers indifferently, just letting the cameras roll as the cast sang and danced, new writer-director Ol Parker shoots with an eye toward what can be done in movies that can’t be done onstage.)

Then there are the Gold tracks that didn’t appear the first time around, all of which make appearances here, including “Fernando,” a highlight that arrives under circumstances best left unspoiled. But that still leaves a lot of movie to fill. Fortunately, Gold is far from all ABBA has to offer, and the lesser-known singles and deep cuts that find their way onto the Here We Go Again soundtrack showcase some sides of ABBA unfamiliar to those who only know the greatest hits.

The sequel doesn’t waste time getting to them, building its first big musical number around “When I Kissed the Teacher,” the opening track of ABBA’s 1976 album Arrival. It’s an odd choice. Though elaborately staged, complete with a choreographed bicycle ride, nothing in the action seems to have anything to do with the lyrics, a G-rated account of a girl with a crush on a teacher. There’s a young woman—Lily James, charming as a younger Donna—a teacher, and a kiss, but not even really the hint of a crush. Still, it’s a fun song, a fun scene, and an early indication that the sequel won’t just be a trip through the tried and true.

That trend continues with “I Wonder (Departure),” from 1977’s ABBA: The Album. It’s part of the song-suite “The Girl With the Golden Hair,” the tale of a small-town girl who pursues music stardom, only to end up disillusioned. On its own, however, it sounds like a classic “I Want” song, and Here We Go Again uses it as just that.

Other songs get more radically reworked. The Fats Domino–inspired “Why Did It Have To Be Me?”—also from Arrival—is split between three singers to show each side of a love triangle. “Kisses of Fire,” a disco-to-the-max track from 1979’s Voulez-Vous, is transformed into a growling showcase for the comically energetic house band of a Greek cafe. Some songs shift thanks to their performers’ interpretations. The sensual “Andante, Andante,” a showcase for Anni-Frid Lyngstad on the 1980 album Super Trouper, becomes a plea from young Donna to be gentle with her heart. “Angeleyes”—a 1979 flop in the U.S., where ABBA had a harder time finding consistent success, but a hit in much of the rest of the world—appears in an arrangement similar to the original recording, but the singing of Seyfried, Christine Baranski, and Julie Walters brings out the despairing undercurrents of a lyric about a woman left lonely by a man who can’t keep from straying.

Here’s where it’s worth noting the sometimes substantial discrepancy between the fluffy image of ABBA and the actual music of ABBA, which, beyond being more musically complex and inventive than the group got credit for at the time, is rich with a fatalistic Scandinavian melancholy. “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” one of the group’s many memorable breakup songs, encapsulates that attitude. (The next words after the title line: “There is nothing we can do.”) But it’s there in hits and deep cuts alike. ABBA may have gotten famous by inspiring listeners to move, but it’s the ability to move listeners that’s made it beloved.

Both Mamma Mia! and its sequel mostly hover around the fluffy end of ABBA appreciation, but their best moments find a richer emotional connection between the characters and the songs they sing. So it’s fitting that the heartbreaking end-of-the-affair ballad “My Love, My Life,” another Arrival album track, could be reworked for Here We Go Again’s moving climax, another moment where describing who’s singing it to whom and why would spoil too much of the plot, and another reminder of how deep the ABBA catalog goes. Whether or not there’s enough left over for a third film (Mamma Mia! My My, How Could I Forget You, maybe?) remains to be seen, but this second entry suggests it might be worth a shot.