I didn’t realize quite how much I needed “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” until, watching several hundred people on a dock greet another several hundred people on a boat by singing “Dancing Queen” at them, I burst into tears. Such is the weird magic of the “Mamma Mia” franchise: by circumventing entirely such concepts as “taste” and “restraint”, it plugs directly into the part of your brain that wants to be reassured and comforted and surrounded by bright colors and soft textiles. (In other words, mamma’d.) You leave the theater feeling as though you have had six months’ worth of intensive therapy, coupled with a vacation to a particularly thorough spa: both your spirit and your cheeks exfoliated. Just as with spas (or therapy), your openness to the “Mamma Mia” experience depends on your comfort level with vulnerability; with uncoolness; with feelings about your mother. There is also singing. “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” is not for cowards. But the bravery of the audience, who must be prepared to sit in public for nearly two hours being sung at, pales in comparison to the courage of actors like Pierce Brosnan (65), Christine Baranski (66), Stellan Skarsgård (67), Julie Walters (68), Meryl Streep (69), and Cher (72), all of whom face being belted into skintight lamé and platformsbefore gingerly negotiating docks, stairs, and high barstools—while singing. (Colin Firth, at 57, is here to capture the youth audience.) The first “Mamma Mia” movie was released ten years to the day before the sequel, and it shows: both in the limited choreography on display, and in the scripted moments where the actors simply bend over and wheeze. I suspect that how you feel about these interludes will mirror how you feel about aging. Those who fear the process will find the spectacle pretty grim, while those who rush forward to embrace it will be heartened to see aging characters treated like physical, carnal beings, in need of a smoke, a drink, a flirtation, and finally a fucking break at the top of the stairs.
The characters in “Mamma Mia” deserve a moment of sustained admiration, as well. I’ve seen the first movie six or eight times, and each time I’m impressed not by the indestructibility of ABBA’s songs (thoroughly tested by Pierce Brosnan) but by the strength of its characters. Within thirty seconds of meeting Julie Walters’s Rosie or Christine Baranski’s Tanya, you can easily imagine the interior of their homes—or their diaries. Similarly, to watch five seconds of Colin Firth’s shy banker Harry dithering about ferry times is to instinctively know, on a gut level, what he craves in bed. (The first movie coyly confirmed the basics, but the second delves into kink: the moment lands as a relief that an old friend has gotten so comfortable with himself.) For the most part, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” honors that rich characterization—the surprise is that instead of moving the focus forward to the next generation, the movie travels backwards in time, introducing actors to play younger versions of the principle grownups in a decade loosely inspired by the 70s, but lacking any actionable resemblance to a real decade, living or dead. The sparkling turquoise world of “Mamma Mia” is innocent of borders, war, or politics beyond those expressed within the ecosystem of a family. Interestingly, this has caused nearly every major movie critic to identify both movies as fluffy, enjoyable distractions from the real, serious concerns of mankind. But both movies hinge entirely on a gutting conversation in the first installment when Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) asks her mother Donna (Streep) how she managed to raise her alone. Streep replies, “Well, honey, I didn’t have a choice […] When I got pregnant, my mother told me not to bother coming back.” That harrowingly lonely situation, and the blast radius it cast across three generations, is a mortar explosion that only fifty percent of an audience, and apparently zero percent of major movie critics, could feel. Maybe there needed to be more tanks.
If “Mamma Mia” is a world devoid of the concerns of mankind, then it follows that perhaps what is being explored are the concerns of womankind. Love. Desire, and what happens when it is thwarted. Family, and what happens when a piece of it is suddenly gone. As it turns out, in the void left by a loved one, the layered harmonies of an old pop song can suddenly matter very, very much. Nearly every major musical number in “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” accentuates a loss: of youth, of a parent, of a partner, of a potential future. The end of the movie has been roundly criticized for throwing the living and the dead together in joyful chaos, as all the characters dance with the youthful versions of themselves. But what else is music for, if not to bridge the gaps between worlds? As long as your record player still works, bye bye doesn’t mean forever.