'Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again' and the return of the big-screen musical

20 Jul 2018 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

6 mins
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again group shot
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again group shot

In 2008, the original Mamma Mia!, an adaptation of the smash-hit stage show based on the songs of Swedish pop band ABBA, surprised everybody by becoming one of the most successful films of all time at the UK box office. Its combination of star power, sunny locations, unashamed kitschiness, and timeless music proved irresistible. However its real success arguably lay in its rare ability to unite audiences and families across generations with a story that was very silly, but also full of warmth, joy, kindness, and unexpected emotion. 

Big-screen musicals have been unfashionable for many years, and frequently on the receiving end of snobbery. But the release of the long-awaited sequel Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again in cinemas this week offers evidence that the musical may be well and truly back.

The Mamma Mia sequel follows swiftly on the dancing heels of The Greatest Showman. Following a relatively modest Christmas release off the back of little hype, Hugh Jackman's lavish story of circus founder PT Barnum has struck a chord with audiences in ways arguably not seen since Titanic. It has remained at the top of the box-office weeks after it would have been expected to disappear from cinemas altogether, and the soundtrack has become one of the biggest selling of all-time. 

All this comes despite the film receiving generally negative reviews, a soundtrack made up entirely of original (and therefore unfamiliar) songs, and the commercial competition of both Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the traditional new year Awards Season run of Oscar®-friendly releases. Audiences have taken The Greatest Showman to their hearts, with social media providing the platform for schools, community groups, friends and families to share their affection for the film with the world by belting out karaoke versions of the film's biggest hits.

The earlier success of La La Land suggested audiences were willing to embrace the musical once again. The popularity of Damien Chazelle's film stemmed from the way it sought to both pay tribute to the traditions of the genre, as well as updating them for a more modern audience, all performed by a hip young cast. Prior to that, the big-screen version of Les Misérables was also an enormous hit, but, like Chicago and Dreamgirls before it, did not seem to pave the way for similar films to follow in its wake.

An explanation for the resurgence of the big-screen musical may lie in the genre's powers of escapism. As political turmoil and uncertainty continues around the world, and the news is seemingly relentlessly full of grim events both domestically and internationally, audiences are finding comfort in the uncomplicated joy of The Greatest Showman or Mamma Mia. This idea has always surrounded the musical, going back to its earliest incarnations when it emerged as a cinematic genre around the time of The Great Depression in 1930s America, with lavish spectacles such as Gold Diggers of 1933.

Musicals also have a unique ability to provide audiences with a collective experience. More and more of us are consuming entertainment at home, on streaming channels, rather than the cinema. Whilst such platforms are convenient and offer a plethora of choice, they cannot offer the same sense of occasion as a cinema. Just as in the 1950s (another period of political uncertainty), when the arrival of television encouraged Hollywood to up their game in terms of spectacle with grand musicals such as Singin' In The Rain, now the increasing popularity of sing-along versions of big-screen musicals is providing audiences something they can never recreate at home.

The makers of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again will be hoping to continue this trend of big-screen musical success, despite the fact many of the most iconic ABBA songs were already performed in the last film, thus perhaps leaving the sequel slightly short of big hits (at least for now). They have cleverly created a story that taps into the nostalgia of older audiences, through the casting of pop icon Cher in a key role and a story that flashes back in time to the 1970s. The film also introduces a host of young faces, developing a theme around growing up, family, and first loves to resonate with younger generations, without losing any of the campy silliness that made the first film so uniquely and universally appealing. With its release at the start of the summer holidays, and audiences seemingly waiting to see something other than dinosaurs and superheroes at their multiplexes, the film's unique blend of joyful escapism and unexpected poignancy looks set to once again bring families and communities together.

Looking ahead, the future for musicals is enormously exciting. October sees the release of Bohemian Rhapsody, a biopic of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, whilst another musical superstar from the 1970s will see his greatest hits transported onto the screen, as Taron Egerton takes on the role of Elton John in 2019's Rocket Man. A modern version of classic Judy Garland vehicle A Star Is Born, starring Lady Gaga and directed by Bradley Cooper, is set for release in the autumn, while big-screen versions of stage hits Wicked, Cats and Everybody's Talking About Jamie are also in the works. Steven Spielberg looks set to fulfil a lifelong dream of directing a musical by remaking West Side Story, and of course, everybody's favourite nanny will be back on screens at Christmas, when Mary Poppins Returns. And that's not including more animated musicals such as Frozen 2 and a live-action version of The Lion King!

Fans of the musical look set to be spoilt for choice in the coming months. However, audiences will also be looking to these films for diversity of themes and representation. Musicals may be able to offer escapism, but they should also move beyond nostalgia to reflect the world we live in. If they can do that, an ABBA song or a timeless West End classic might just be able to do its bit and bring people together, across families, classrooms and communities, at least for a few hours.

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Curation Manager (Learning)

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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