Time is an interesting thing. Ten years ago, Mamma Mia!, the smash West End and Broadway hit made its way to the silver screen. Now, the sequel that no one was really screaming for is dancing into cinemas, ten years later to the week. If the songs are equally joyous, the context that they are landing in is very different. It is, in fact, so different, that it may be making the cleverly titled follow-up, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, the queer film of the year.
A critical bomb
The year was 2008. The Dark Knight entered our cultural consciousness and Christopher Nolan redefined the contours of blockbusters and action films in the process. The Oscars had failed to recognise Brokeback Mountain as best picture (but it wasn’t going to be too long before a gay film got the top gong, right?) only a couple of years before. The United States was hopeful that it was going to step out of the controversial Bush era by electing either the first woman president or its first African American president.
The same week that Warner Bros rolled out the Batman classic, Universal rolled out the anticipated adaptation of the stage musical. Musicals were far from in vogue on screen, and what were all those stars doing in it? Yes, Meryl Streep had found a new audience and proven herself to be a box office draw with The Devil Wears Prada, but what was a bone fide thespian doing in a silly musical singing ABBA songs? She was having fun -and so was the audience, to the point that the film grossed over $600 million at the box office.
The critics, however, were not enthusiastic. Indeed, the now-iconic one-star review by Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian resented the cult following that ABBA enjoyed, the fact that the musical was a franchise spawning into film, and everything about the movie itself.
Ten years later
Now, the sequel that no one asked for is met with the same box office warmth, having grossed over $70 worldwide in its opening weekend, but -surprise!- some critical enthusiasm. Mark Kermode in the Guardian even went as far as giving it five stars. What could have brought about this change? Well…
We won’t go through all the reasons why people need escapism at the moment, but the need is… dire. The creative team also stepped up its credentials by hiring a film writer and director, Ol Parker who wrote The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a vehicle for third-age thespians and another unlikely franchise, and Imagine Me & You.
The movie retains the core traits of the Mamma Mia! brand: a plot loose enough that it enables the crowbarring of ABBA songs, a heavy dose of silliness, and more ABBA songs. The movie’s basic concept also steals from a classic sequel, The Godfather Part II, by going back into the past of a major character while exploring the continuation of the action of the first instalment.
Because the film is the same and also not the same as the first one, because the creative team stepped up their game, the reception for the movie feels different. However, because the context is so drastically different, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again may even be more than a box office success and an entertaining pop corn movie.
The queer film of the year
It’s no secret that ABBA has a great gay following. Not only is the music infectiously joyous, the performances are incredibly camp. That camp element is probably what drew audiences and got critics to cringe.
Mamma Mia! is inherently silly. The plot, when not too preposterous, is thin to say the least and the dialogue is not poetry. But it is seriously made and intent in its silliness. This is precisely camp as Susan Sontag defined it in Notes on Camp.
“Camp involves a new, more complex relation to “the serious.” One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious” —Susan Sontag
In the ten years since the first movie came out, camp made a place for itself in the cultural landscape beyond the niche that is the queer community. It doesn’t get more zeitgeisty than quoting Ru Paul’s Drag Race, these days. Not only is camp more recognisable for its own sake now, it is also recognised as a valid alternative to the dreary and glum news cycles of daily life.
So when the American president (unfortunately not Michael Douglas) calls the pillar of left-wing thought, the omnipotent cultural judge of good taste that is the New York Times “fake news”, shouldn’t we all want to support that institution? A lot of critics have maintained their cultural standing and refrained a cultural product whose whole point is enjoyment, but that is fine too, because camp is gaining mainstream awareness but not necessarily mainstream ownership. (The New York Times didn’t like the sequel, which at least shows consistency.)
A subversive franchise
The ownership of camp remains firmly on the side of those perform it: the fans of ABBA, the drag queens on RuPaul’s drag race, the actors in Mamma Mia! -first and foremost Cher, who plays her persona and makes fun of it as well.
For all those reasons, it seems that Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is timely. It is a franchise, capitalising on established commodities; and it is a camp escape from reality at a time when people need it most. It is also very subversive to find, in an aggressively heterosexual business, a mainstream film that is so camp, puts at the forefront women in their 20’s to their 70’s, who are sexually confident and have agency over their own lives. And isn’t being so subversive the queerest thing to do.