Listen, it’s not important how I ended up spending my Friday night at a Mamma Mia! sing-along-in Brooklyn. It’s just important that I was there. Or really, that we were all there, together, as one chorus — and at times, it felt, one soul — throwing our hands in the air to proclaim to the heavens that most sacred of edicts: If you change your mind, I’m the first in line. Honey I’m still free…take a chance on me.
This was actually the third annual Mamma Mia! sing-along hosted by @tasteofstreep aka @pizzahontas aka Samantha Raye, a 28-year-old actor and graphic designer from Brooklyn who has gained popularity for photoshopping photos of Meryl Streep with food (to the tune of 230,000 followers). She wasn’t a Mamma Mia! fan until she hosted the first singalong in August 2016. It was that experience that had her hooked. However, this screening had a particular significance thanks to the recent release of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, the Mamma Mia! sequel nobody asked for and, at the same time, I would die without.
Based on a hugely, globally successful stage musical of the same name that premiered in in the West End at the Prince Edward Theatre in 1999, Mamma Mia!, a feature film with an all-ABBA songbook, was released 10 years ago to lukewarm reviews. The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane described the movie as a “useful contribution” to the legal definition of torture. One Rotten Tomatoes user called it a “true dreck.”
Lane, however, changed his tune this time around, conceding to the sequel’s “musty charm.” In fact, many critics of the 2018 follow-up came to the same conclusion: Try as you might, you just can’t seem to hate it.
“The scenery's gorgeous, as is the cast, and it's got Cher,” pointed out NPR’s Glen Weldon. “Why do you need it to be anything more than that?
“I wish I could tell you that Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is ridiculous and I hated it,” wrote Boston Globe’s Ty Burr. “But the fact is that it's ridiculous and I loved every minute.”
All I can say is, welcome to the club. We have music and overalls and, in the case of Friday night’s sing-along at Syndicated Bar in Bushwick, cookies with Meryl Streep’s face on them. While Mamma Mia! may have not made as big of a splash during its initial release (it made $27,751,240 opening weekend, compared to the sequel’s $34,952,180) it laid the groundwork for an entire generation of fans whose obsession with the franchise — which no one predicted would be a franchise — gets stronger with time.
a huge thank you to everyone that attended our mamma mia sing-a-long parties this week. it’s always such a pleasure getting to meet all of you, and as much fun as it is to participate in the party - it’s even more fun to watch you all enjoying yourselves so much. from the bottom of my heart - you’re all amazing & i can’t thank you enough for making this possible ?and another huge thank you to @syndicatedbk for hosting us year after year - and to @magnoliabakery for so generously making all of these incredible cookies!!!!
“The first time I saw Mamma Mia! was in college,” 30-year-old Rachel Roberts told me after complimenting the Donna Sheridan overalls my friends and I bought for the occasion (We won a prize for wearing them. A Meryl Streep keychain, specifically. That’s not important to this piece, but it’s important to me that you know that). “I don’t think I saw it in theaters, though. I saw it, I think hungover, on a Saturday. And I was like, ‘What have I missed? I’ve done everything wrong in my life. Mamma Mia! is the best thing to ever exist.’”
Friends Ray, 30, JJ, 29, and Nina, 28, all were similarly unhurried with their introductions to the film. They definitely didn’t see it in theaters, perhaps instead when it appeared on Netflix or maybe even on an airplane. It doesn’t matter how you saw it, because the moment you do, your life suddenly splits in two: before you’ve heard Pierce Brosnan sing “S.O.S.,” and after.
Let’s talk about that actually, because much of the initial criticism of the film was due to the fact that it wasn’t, well, good? The dialogue is hacky, the cast’s musical abilities uneven, and there’s a scene involving flippers that gives me so much second-hand embarrassment. But it’s almost ridiculous to think anyone is watching Mamma Mia! because they think it’s good. They’re watching it because of how goddamn delightful is it that someone made this. That a group of Oscar winners (Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, and Julie Walters coming in hot with two BAFTAs) and well-regarded artists wanted to prance around on a beach singing songs that just barely string together a narrative. It’s the Hollywood equivalent of getting together with your friends after school to make up a dance routine, or performing an off-the-cuff but extremely important play with your siblings in front of your parents. Mamma Mia! is joy, unbridled.
So, by the way, is ABBA. The Swedish pop group, made up of members Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, is one of the best-selling groups of all time with over 380 million albums and singles. While fans found their way to the musical in their own time, those at the singalong were fans of ABBA from the start. Twenty-three-year old Alexis has home videos of herself at 3 years old recreating ABBA music videos, while Ray was an A*Teens (an ABBA teen tribute band) stan before migrating to the real deal.
“I know ABBA just from life,” Rachel explained, as if the band was like drinking water or brushing your teeth every night. “Hearing Pierce Brosnan sing ABBA? A whole new world opened up for me.”
It’s a perfect storm of catchy songs, familiar faces, and just enough camp to make 2018 bearable. The world is currently so loud, so divided, so outwardly and inwardly corrupt that Colin Firth dancing on a boat is not just nice to watch, it’s downright necessary. It’s a safe space if you’re a woman, if you’re gay, or if you’re just really bad at singing. Mamma Mia! will have you all!
On Friday night, singing Mamma Mia! in a room of strangers approximated a type of therapy. Fans didn’t just open their mouths to sing, but to make comments (“YAAS girl, rock that one-piece!” when Amanda Seyfried as Sophie took off her clothes to jump into the ocean) and criticisms (Brosnan really does do a lot of mansplaining). During the final number, everyone jumped out of their chairs to dance. As I left the venue, my friends and I shared a group hug with two women we had never met. The world can’t come together over literally anything, but we can come together over this.
“It’s just so happy,” Rachel said. “It’s just so fun. It makes fun of itself. Everything you want.”
As for Ray, he’s in it for the Streep.
“For me personally, seeing Meryl have so much fun [is what makes it special],” he told me. “It’s so clear. She can play a very serious role, like when she was Margaret Thatcher [in The Iron Lady], but then be on the [Mamma Mia!] set. You can tell she’s just living her life. Seeing that side of her brings me joy.”
While Alexis has already seen the sequel — twice — I found more that those attending the sing-along were doing it as an appetizer. Rachel, Ray, JJ, and Nina were all seeing Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again the next day. It wouldn’t be right to see the sequel without paying homage to the original.
While the current showings of the sequel technically aren’t sing-alongs, the energy of the community remains. Even in my press screening of the sequel a few days before its release, the theater was packed with good vibrations, and the audience frequently erupted into cheers. This is not a movie to watch alone, but instead with as many friends as you can muster. And if you don’t have friends to muster, whoever ends up sitting next to you is just as good. By the time the movie’s over, you’ll both have grown that much closer just by nature of sharing this experience together. You’re in the Mamma Mia! club now — couldn’t escape if you wanted to.