After more than nine years (and counting) of continuous stage performances, the musical Mamma Mia!, featuring songs from the ABBA catalog awkwardly stitched into a romantic comedy plot, was adapted for the big screen by the same producer/director/writer team that had taken it to the theater. (That would be Judy Craymer, Phyllida Lloyd, and Catherine Johnson, respectively.) Like its counterpart, it pleased moviegoers but not critics, and thankfully the film itself is not the primary subject of this consideration. The soundtrack album simply consists of 18 ABBA songs sung by the stars of the movie, most of whom are not professional singers. The instrumental portions of the music are remarkably similar to the original ABBA recordings, which is not surprising given that ABBA member Benny Andersson, who produced this album, reunited the original studio musicians to re-create their parts. Their playing (his, in particular) is a bit less precise here and there three decades on, but for the most part it's hard to tell the difference. On the original recordings, the Swedish singing group revealed its ESL (English as a second language) limitations, just as the songwriters (Andersson, fellow member Björn Ulvaeus, and sometimes Stig Anderson) revealed their ESL lyric-writing limitations. Here, the first of those problems is alleviated, while the second is somewhat elided by performers who are actors used to finding ways to say (or sing) even the silliest lines with some conviction. That's all to the good. But the generally low to mediocre quality of singing is such as to suggest an all-ABBA night in a karaoke bar.
The singers may be divided into those who embarrass themselves and those who manage to avoid doing so. In the latter category, the most prominent is Meryl Streep, in the starring role of Donna, an innkeeper living on a Greek isle with her daughter Sophie, who is about to be married and, never having been told who her real father is, sets the plot in motion by writing to three of her mother's ex-boyfriends and inviting them to the wedding. Streep, who has some stage singing experience, is actually better when she's belting than when she has to be more intimate and expressive, as she is called on to do for most of the ballad "The Winner Takes It All." Amanda Seyfried, as Sophie, also does well (and she even gets an extra solo, singing "Thank You for the Music" with only piano accompaniment as the album's hidden track). Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, and Julie Walters are not heard from much, and therefore also fit into the non-embarrassing category. The real problem is Pierce Brosnan, who simply can't sing at all, but who tries hard during such leads as "SOS" and particularly "When All Is Said and Done," to often painful effect. (It's too bad that Christine Baranski, a ringer who has real musical theater chops, only gets to sing "Does Your Mother Know," not only because the album would be vastly improved with more of her, but also because she is so much better than the others that she makes them sound even worse than they are.) On-screen, just as on-stage, Mamma Mia! is at best a guilty pleasure. On disc, it is no more than a souvenir of the film experience (which didn't keep this album from topping charts all over the world upon its release).