NOVEMBER 29th 2008
I was an Abba fan from the very beginning, the more so as time passed and they developed emotionally and musically. I was prepared, by much publicity and news of extraordinary sales figures, for the DVD of a film of Mamma Mia (which I had not seen on the stage) to be a great exprience.

This evening I was treated to it on a large high-quality domestic screen belonging to a friend and sat through it in increasing disbelief that those responsible for the production and its execution had so little respect for anyone but the most relentless and cloth-eared Abba addict.

I am amazed they could not have been told when they had finished the final cut that they had produced an experience so painful that, if taken even as anything more than mindless audio-visual entertainment for those suffering from attention deficit disorder, would signal the death of the film musical as a genre.

I now have to take about six hours of deep sleep and perhaps hours of thought before I can marshal the words to express, fully and accurately, the technical, musical, dramatic, cinematic, cultural, and pictorial audio-visual abyss that this.... thing..... production..... I don't know what word to use, represents.

The morning after...
Well, I have slept on it - not very well I have to say - and I will try to be fair. First of all let me say the movie was introduced by my hostess who had seen it in the cinema and thought it was fabulous. I had just that afternoon been listening to "The latest movie news and reviews. Francine Stock talks to Judy Craymer, the creator of Mamma Mia, the most commercially successful British film of all time, as it is released on DVD". We heard what triumph it was for British Cinema and for Judy Craymer who had prevented Hollywood from mucking it up. I was enthused and believed it all. That many million people can't be wrong!

So this was the moment. My hostess switched it on and for some minutes we watched in silence. After some time she ventured: "Well I guess you have to see it in the cinema. I went with a friend.... it was fun..." I said: "It's terrible". She said "It gets better". It didn't. We were an audience of 3 humans and two TV viewing dogs. At the end there were no dissenting voices. It stank. Here is why:

1. In choosing  the widest screen format, the producers have fallen into the biggest elephant trap the movie business has made for itself and biggest egg ever laid by the technical standards gurus who mis-plan our miserable lot. We will be living with this for the foreseeable future, particularly now that the HD-TV merchants have made the same error.  Take a look at this page: Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest and come back here where I will tell you in advance that the best aspect ratio for the human eyes and brain and for every purpose under the sun, on small handhelds and in the cinema, is  the good old
4:3, in either portrait or landscape (always lansdcape for movies).

You can get away with Cinemascope etc. in a cinema with a big screen, as the top of that screen is way above the viewer's head (in a decent seat). Because the screen is huge, you do not have to do exaggerated close-ups for the audience to see faces in detail. In fact a real close-up on a big cinema screen is overpowering. Great musicals have been filmed in wide screen formats but only by people who knew what they were doing and even then they were only supportable when viewed at home if all, or nearly all, the height of the TV screen was used in the frame, the sides of the picture trimmed and the action centred if needed in the adaption process. I viewed Mamma on a large new wide-screen digital TV and although the full width was used, the top and bottom of the screen were still black for a few inches. Like looking through a letterbox with the top at about eye level.

Even then it would have been OK if the camera operators and director had known what they were doing, as we could have made an adjustment and lost the  extremes. But they did not know what they were doing. They had decided to film lots of the action in close-up even when people were jumping up and down and, in this film, there is a whole heap of jumping. The tops of heads were often cut off when standing still, and when moving about there was a serious loss of body parts in all directions. This produced serious viewer discomfort, as every time the action or part of a person passed the top of the screen one was aware of watching a TV or viewing through a hole and thereby removed from any involvement. Golden rule: the margin of perception should NOT interact with active subject matter or the illusion of presence is lost.

2. Even without suffering from all of the above, in most of the shots (with some obvious scenic exceptions) there was no background in focus, no ground or floor, no ceiling, roof or sky, no sense of where the characters were as they acted out the flimsy story; and act it they did as if their lives depended on it, with not a trace of subtlety. There was thus no trace of atmosphere, no poignancy, no visual lyricism to associate the mood with the music with the people. In the same musical number the picture cut from one place to another, one time to another, from indoor to outdoor, from one or two performers to a crowd of hundreds suddenly involved in the same action for no apparent reason at all. I would not have been surprised if a cartoon character such as Bugs Bunny had suddenly joined in and ushered on stage the entire Warner Brothers animal kingdom, joining in a chorus. No doubt this was deliberate, a new approach, as if to say "we know characters don't really burst into song so what the hell, don't lets pretend, this is a party". But the result is neither one thing nor the other. It is meaningless.

3. The music. What can I say. I guess they got some very competent professionals to plunk it out. They plunked out, as if generated by an automated electronic system devoid of any human input at all.
There were exceptions of course in some of the less plunky bits. But the whole point of Abba was they played, and recorded, in a very, very special way, what would otherwise have been simple and sometimes banal music. The instrumental banalisation here was dire.

4. The acting? Baransky played herself, or one of her classic selves, quite sassy and, er.. yes.... the men read the lines from their scripts as they were told and moved their eyebrows appropriately. They seem embarrassed, not just as part of the plot but to be taking part at all - and I am nor surprised. Amanda Seyfried charmed and intensified but after a bit one could take a bit less of it. As for Streep, she tried to make something of it but in the middle of a movie  mess like this, what can you do? At the end she desperately tried to make an arm-waving drama out of a song that in the hands of Agnetha Faltskog was a real heartbreaker. The music and the voice, with minimalist and moving body language should say it all. But this was a travesty. Of Walters, the less said the better....

In summary, a really desperate attempt to blend music which should only be played and sung by ABBA with a story contrived to make use of it. It could have worked, but they hadn't a clue how to do it. For some who go to the cinema determined to enjoy it on the big screen, the sound and frenetic activity may disguise the utter lack of any artistic or technical or dramatic merit or interest of any sort but a day or two later, who will remember a single scene apart from the embarrassing ones? In contrast, who will not remember for ever the many scenes in all the other great musicals of the past.

Worst of all, this has been a commercial success. These people, the producers and directors, have made money and may go on to commit further crimes in the media. It is too late to bring a halt to their careers. All we can hope for is a crash like the bankers had, for the same reason - loss of plot, loss of (artistic in this case) integrity, abuse of technology and the meaningless tweaking of a few pavlovian synapses in the public nervous system. As for ABBA, let us hope their heritage and reputation can recover, for if this is the legacy most often discovered by later generations, they will not be admired.

DECEMBER 1st 2008
I have had a chance to re-read my review above and thought I had better have a look at the IMDB Database to see what other reviews were around. Hmmm... they were ecstatic..... except for ONE - from
Roland E. Zwick ( - who in his own more polished words said a lot of what I have said above. I see that 42 out of 65 people found his comments useful. Perhaps I am not having any original thoughts here...

But, you will say, what a grinch you are, James, how uncharitable and mean. Never mind your miserable technical complaints, here are people doing their best to make a great picture to bring happiness and tell unmarried mothers who sleep around and fatherless children that it's fun to be either of these! Why not both? Nothing to worry about, it's all in the mind! Let's just be happy, why get married anyway? It will all turn out alright in the end and children will have more fathers and a bigger extended family. Think of the millions of young people who will see this film and follow the lead of these beautiful icons of the new century ! "

Of course you are right. There are not nearly enough unmarried mothers or fatherless children in Britain, if we had more, they would not feel so out of it. What a boring old fart I am, I am; what a boring old fart I am!