There are movies you see once and are done with, others you return to out of love or curiosity or a desire to understand them better, and some that just stubbornly refuse to leave your life, accruing meaning and emotion the way grit in an oyster eventually forms a pearl. I don’t remember when I first showed my daughter Mamma Mia!, the 2008 adaptation of a long-running Broadway jukebox musical that wove ABBA’s most familiar hits into a story one might generously describe as “ramshackle.” It must have been a few years after the film came out, when she was around 5—too young to understand the movie’s multiple romantic intrigues and mildly naughty jokes, but old enough to sing along with the infernally catchy songs and enjoy the sunny Greek island setting. I figured she might enjoy the mother-daughter angle of the story as freewheeling innkeeper Donna (Meryl Streep) helps daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) plan her wedding to Sky (Dominic Cooper). And I knew she would respond to the movie’s life-affirming spirit, its infectiously goofy songs and playful choreography, and the “I’m game if you are” commitment of its A-list-on-vacation cast. Mamma Mia! is in essence celebrity karaoke night, or at its best, celebrity open-mic night: Meryl Streep sings and dances in overalls before falling through the roof of a barn! Colin Firth plays guitar on a boat! Pierce Brosnan … emits a lowing sound suggestive of cattle being branded, but he does it with such soulfulness you appreciate the effort!
I had no idea what I was getting into when I ordered that discount DVD. Seven years later, my daughter, now an aspiring actor, has a postcard of Meryl Streep taped up above her bed. She’s seen every Streep film that’s remotely age-appropriate—Sophie’s Choice, Silkwood, and A Cry in the Dark still lie in her future—and her life’s dream is to encounter the three-time Oscar winner in the wild and grill her about her craft, or at least how she pulled off that full-split jump at the beginning of “Dancing Queen.” Countless dinner conversations in our home have circled back to the timeless riddle of who would make the best dad among Harry, Sam, and Bill (Firth, Brosnan, and Stellan Skarsgård), the three men who are candidates to have impregnated Donna with Sophie one lusty summer 20 years before. (We generally agree on the dad ranking, with occasional change-ups in the top spot: Bill would be the most fun, Harry the most responsible, and Sam the most boring, albeit still unimpeachably nice.) A secondary fandom has sprung up around Christine Baranski, who plays Donna’s cheerfully promiscuous friend Tanya with a sly, campy flair. I once saw Baranski at the opera, milling around during intermission in a beautiful gold fitted jacket, and am sometimes called upon to revisit this occasion as if it were an audience with the queen. I hold it as a point of pride that my daughter has spent much of her childhood stanning for two women who are now in their mid-to-late 60s.
All of that is to say that the 10-years-later sequel, aptly titled Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (sometimes the subtitle just writes itself), lands on fertile ground in this particular household.
Unfortunately, right now my daughter is away at camp, where I hope she’s cannonballing into water as blue and inviting as the sea that surrounds the fictional island of Kalokairi. (In fact the sequel was filmed on the Croatian island of Vis, to the disappointment of the residents of Skopelos, the Aegean paradise where the first film was shot. In the years since, that island’s scenic clifftop chapel has become a destination wedding site.) But I’m in New York in the hot, muggy middle of an unbelievably depressing summer, and a flimsy feel-good musical with a lot of famous, smiling, suntanned faces singing songs as indestructible as diamonds feels like exactly what I need.
There are some less familiar faces in Here We Go Again! as well. Set a few years after the events of the first film, the sequel—written and directed this time by Ol Parker—intercuts another celebration on the island, the grand re-opening of Donna’s seaside hotel, with flashbacks from that fateful summer years before when the young Donna (played with go-for-broke gusto by Lily James) first decided to make Kalokairi her home. That was a busy summer for Donna: Over the course of a single ovulation cycle, she not only had flings with three handsome young men (played, in the preferred order specified above, by Josh Dylan, Hugh Skinner, and Jeremy Irvine), but visited both Paris and Greece, in addition to performing multiple times with Tanya and Rosie (Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies), backup singers in the unwitting ABBA cover band Donna and the Dynamos. (Nobody mentions which band member, if any, writes the Dynamos’ infernally catchy tunes. Songs in the Mamma Mia! universe seem to burst from the ground as organically as lava, expressing the characters’ feelings even, or especially, when the lyrics have little to do with their predicament.) In the present day, the middle-aged versions of these long-ago hotties converge on the island to honor the memory of Donna, a force-of-nature earth mother who, as the early scenes make clear, has since passed on to that great karaoke bar in the sky.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again has the loose, galumphing structure of a poorly planned but well-lubricated family reunion. People arrive at the island in a boat, singing and dancing in merry unison; later, after some weather-related setbacks and interpersonal squabbles, more people arrive and further ballads are belted. Some of the most important guests—Cher as Sophie’s long-estranged pop-star grandmother and Meryl herself as Donna, returning only in spectral form for a single, effectively tearjerking scene—arrive the latest and sing the least. Secrets are revealed, though we sort of suspected most of them all along.
Even ABBA’s inexhaustible catalog isn’t so packed with hits that it’s not worth recycling a few classics, and there are full reprises of the title song, “Dancing Queen,” and “Super Trouper,” along with partial revisits of “S.O.S” (this time mercifully talk-sung by Brosnan) and “I Have a Dream.” “Waterloo,” which appeared in the last film only as a post-credits coda, gets incorporated into a gloriously weird production number in a French restaurant, with a red tablecloth repurposed as an impromptu Napoleon costume. And to the audience’s whoops of glee, there is the Velveeta-layered revolutionary anthem “Fernando,” delivered by Cher with a pleasantly tuneless assist from Andy Garcia as the smoking-hot hotel employee Señor Cienfuegos—with whom Cher’s character, the resolutely ungrandmotherly Ruby, apparently shared a sultry night many years ago.
One disappointment of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again: In a musical as gay as the last gay train to Gayville—and one that takes a Shakespearean pleasure in pairing up all its characters by the final scene—there should be a romantic storyline for Colin Firth’s Harry, who came out to both himself and the world at the end of the first film. The most he gets is the suggestion of a missed connection between his younger self and a gruff security agent at the island port. Given the amount of cash queer audiences are likely to pony up to escape the summer heat in this pleasure-loving, sex-positive, Cher-starring Ramos gin fizz of a movie, it seems like the least the writer-director could have done to provide Harry with his own fair share of island lovin’.
Enjoying musicals is a necessary but not sufficient condition for appreciating the Mamma Mia! movies. You must also believe in the foolish yet empowering myth a good musical propagates: the notion that you, given a backup track and enough time to rehearse, might plausibly star in a musical yourself. Among my daughter’s and my favorite moments in the original Mamma Mia! is a line in the song “Super Trouper” that Donna, performing onstage in her full glitter-pantsuited glory, delivers directly to her daughter: “ ’Cause somewhere in the crowd, there’s you.” In this sequel’s reprise of that song, the line is delivered directly to us, the audience. It’s enough to send you out of the theater singing, imaginary feather boa held aloft, ready to grab a few friends and dive off the nearest pier.