Musical sequels are so rare that the most successful ones are currently High School Musical 2 and 3! Grease 2 is great but it took people decades to realize, and Shock Treatment has great music but few people know there even was a sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again will probably fare better than the Grease and Rocky sequels, but it doesn’t really forward the story of Mamma Mia, and there isn’t even new music, only ABBA songs they didn’t get to the first time.
Normally, the hardest part of a musical sequel is writing all new songs that have to measure up to a Broadway smash. With Mamma Mia the heavy lifting has already been done by ABBA.
However, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again still has the other problem that the writer of the original Broadway book did not write a sequel. Catherine Johnson is credited with story, but shared with Richard Curtis and Ol Parker, with Parker credited with the screenplay.
So without a new Catherine Johnson story to tell, Parker goes back and tells the story we already know. Most of Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again is about how young Donna (Lily James) met the three men who became Sophie (Amanda Seyfried)’s possible fathers.
This approach of a backdoor prequel within a sequel worked well for The Godfather, and again in some of the Saw sequels. There is absolutely no conflict since we know Donna doesn’t end up with any of the men, but the music is good and James is fantastic.
It does capture the postgrad freedom of having adventures before you start your life. It’s evident in James’ attitude and reflected in the choreography as she dances through potentially life changing encounters.
Back in the present, Sophie is opening the Hotel Bella Donna in honor of her mother (Streep) who died a year before the movie begins. So yes, James is meant to fill the void left by having limited access to Streep, and damned if James doesn’t fill those dancing shoes.
But yeah, you’re waiting 90 minutes for Streep, the star of Mamma Mia, to actually appear. It’s a graceful appearance if that’s all the Meryl you’ve got, but I’ve gotta wonder if they wrote around her because Streep didn’t want to do the whole sequel.
I can’t imagine having Streep on board but saying, “No thanks, Meryl, we’re killing you off but we’ll throw you a bone at the end.”
The present day story has even less conflict than the flashback. Sophie and Sky (Dominic Cooper) are having a fight, and two of the dads can’t make the opening. All of these conflicts are solved by characters simply changing their minds.
The lack of narrative drive matters little when you’re rocking out to the songs of ABBA. Even with the greatest hits used up, a lot of these B sides are catchy.
And they still reprise some of the most important ABBA hits. That’s a first for a musical sequel. Shock Treatment doesn’t have Time Warp and Grease 2 doesn’t have Summer Nights. I must say I got chills when the young trio sang the title track.
The choreography is rousing and energetic, full of expert background dancers doing acrobatic feats behind the stars.
Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again probably couldn’t command a Broadway ticket price, but it’ll do for two hours in a movie theater getting to hear the music in Dolby Digital. And hopefully it paves the way for the trilogy, Mamma Mia: Tokyo Drift.
Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again opens Friday, July 20.