Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is the stuff of delusions; it is delusional. It is a mirage of water in the middle of the desert. It is an untraceable lure of music coming from somewhere (—the soul?). I don’t engage with it on an intellectual level. We are not equals, myself and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Rather, I let it take the reins. I trust it with my heart. My brain unwrinkles, stretching its tendrils outwards towards the sun.
The way I see it is this: On the desert island—literal, figurative, I’m not doing the math for you—you want time to pass but you don’t want to die. So, the two worst things are time not passing and also dying. And if Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is about anything, it’s about: time passing and dying. I know, it sounds grim—it’s anything but. It’s a movie about the past and present, harmonizing.
If the events of Mamma Mia! elude you, or perhaps you are, I don’t know, Mamma Mia! prequel-averse, Phyllida Lloyd’s 2008 movie-musical was an adaptation of Broadway’s ABBA jukebox musical. It’s ABBA! Who doesn’t love ABBA? Exactly. The story, well, it doesn’t matter much, but in case it does: it’s an age-old tale of paternity mystery, and of living on a Greek island for no apparent reason. It’s sort of like King Lear except instead of conniving daughters, there are wholesome fathers. It is a testament to the wonders of unprotected sex. It is about Christine Baranski. It is about Colin Firth. It is about making peace with who your family is, warts and all. This is easy when the pop music is loud and the colors are bright.
Still, a question of the necessity of a sequel arises—especially one a decade later for a movie that, while commercially successful, did not leave much of a lasting impact beyond Meryl Streep’s overalls or Pierce Brosnan’s singing voice (which is completely fine, so says this author). But let us keep in mind the state of things we live in. Sequels are not necessary, but compulsory. We are eager to see things we know all over again in worse lighting and lazy writing. Occasionally there are glimmers of something different, something special. We saw this in Magic Mike XXL; we saw this in Prometheus. It is possible—and this is maybe why the lazy sequels and prequels come off as cruel and wasteful—for something we know to feel new.
In the hands of Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel-verse) and Catherine Johnson and Richard Curtis (do I even need to spell out his career? Listen, About Time makes me cry so hard), Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again transforms from a product milking pre-existing IP into something more profound and celebratory. It contextualizes the past alongside the present, its characters looking beyond themselves and at each other. Why did all these people wind up together on this island singing ABBA? Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again does not answer this question, but it does strive to expand the emotional depth of the first movie, the heart growing and pumping with love and pop music.
Or maybe it’s just really simple: Are there enough ABBA songs to make another musical? Of course. Are there some ABBA songs from the original that could be repeated in a sequel? Also, of course.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is set across two timelines:1 the present day—not long after the first movie ended, sometime around 2008, maybe 2010, definitely Obama era—and the 1970s. Its vision of the present day is bright and cheerful and pleasantly boho chic, and its vision of the 1970s is equally bright and cheerful and boho chic. This is purposeful, of course: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is not striving for period accuracy nor clarity in its timeline (more on that later). It’s a movie about how the past and the present are more alike than we think, especially when everyone is wearing a kooky outfit.
If the first Mamma Mia! revolved around Donna (Meryl Streep), the titular mamma, one prone to prequel/sequel disillusionment may deride: “So, what, the second one is, like, how she became the Mamma Mia?” Yes, exactly. What we know about Donna is this: she had affairs with three different men—Harry (Colin Firth), Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), and Sam2 (Pierce Brosnan), one of whom is the father of her daughter, Sophie. Who is the father? It doesn’t matter. Neither Mamma Mia! film seeks to answer this question. Sam is the one who wants to stay with Donna; Bill and Harry are, for lack of better words, just some nice guys. It is a lesson in making peace with the unknown. All three, to the extent of their abilities, step up as father figures to Sophie.
Death is not evaded so much as met face-first, with love and regret and frustration, at the onset of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Donna has died, causes unknown and unexplored, sometime after the events of the first film, with Sophie left to take up the mantle. She wants to turn their home on Kalokairi into a luxury hotel, one that reflects the beauty and generosity her mother left behind. (A ruder and smarter self could make the case for MM!HWGA being a film about gentrification, and it would not be wrong; but shush) If the first Mamma Mia! sought to answer a question about identity—Do I know who I am without knowing who my father is?—the second one asks a different question: How do I best use the time that I have?
For Sophie, it’s pouring herself into the memories of her mother through the object of the hotel. She’s completely externalized her grief, memorializing her mother through spa packages and a giant welcome party. For Sky (Dominic Cooper), her husband, it’s a question of money and support. Donna’s death has made the stakes of their lives feel that much greater (though still not all that great—it’s an ABBA musical, after all).
In Sky’s absence—temporary at the onset of the movie, with the mounting dread of a longer term separation in the future—Sophie must make the most of the Hotel Bella Donna’s grand opening. Luckily she has her mother’s friends, Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski) to help. Sam, too, is ever-present. New to the family is the hotel manager, Señor Cienfuegos (a smoldering Andy Garcia), there to smooth over any kinks in the hotel planning and any narrative gaps that might pop up. There’s not a lot of action in the present day, at least not for the first hour of the film. Mostly Sophie frets. Sky is gone. Her mother is gone. She thinks opening the hotel is the right thing to do, but why is “opening a hotel” the answer to any emotional question? She mourns the loss of her mother, who she is certain would know what to do. If only she understood the extent to which her mother flew by the seat of her (floral) pants, each night different than the last.
Young Donna is brought to life by Lily James who, for all her accomplishments, might be operating at a career peak here. I say this not because her body of work isn’t strong, but because she commits so thoroughly and enthusiastically to this character and this world that the whole movie would collapse without her. The present day timeline could be about literally anything3 and it would be, and is, enhanced by the seductive and exciting mythology of Donna’s quote-unquote origin story.
Consider: she is a graduate of Oxford (okay?) who makes her way on her own through Western Europe (who hasn’t?) to give birth to a child that she raises on her own. In an ocean of self-congratulating story arcs for female characters that wind up being about aspirations of careers in STEM—even Cruella, in this humble writer’s opinion, is a movie about engineering—the Mamma Mia!verse’s Donna is a breath of fresh air. She wants to laugh and to party and to dance and to fuck. She’s willing to accept the consequences of those actions (namely, by having a baby) provided she can do so with joy.
She goes from France, where she unintentionally seduces Harry (Hugh Skinner—funny! Love this guy), to the Mediterranean Sea, where she is willfully seduced by Bill (Josh Dylan), to Kalokairi where she meets Sam (Jeremy Irvine) and they sort of, kind of mutually seduce one another.4 Her affairs, ranging from not serious to very, are fully felt. There is no right answer, at least not one that’s immediately apparent. Each man is suitable for the moment she’s living in, and she’s a woman who lives only in moments.
All of these men, too, grapple with their place in the world, what comes ahead for them. Harry dreads taking over his father’s bank; Bill evades responsibility entirely; Sam, as we come to learn, is taking a week away from a fiancée back home. One of the most painful lessons of self-growth is coming to the realization that the people before you, around you, after you…none of them have any idea what they’re doing. For all their planning, plotting, persistence, and determination, there’s great knowledge to be found in the unknown.
There are countless perfect moments in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, a movie in which Christine Baranski utters the line “Be still, my beating vagina” within the first 15 minutes. Where the Ol Parker magic really sparks, however, is in a moment when young Donna and young Rosie (Alexa Davies) and young Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn—doing a Christine Baranski impression so nuanced and skilled that she should have won a Nobel, if not a Golden Globe) reunite as their girl band, Donna and the Dynamos, to sing…yes…“Mamma Mia.”5 It’s not the conventional cadence of ABBA’s hyper-catchy hit, but something more soulful, hard-felt. “Look at me now, will I ever learn?” hits like a world-weary scold. When she finds the so-called “fire within her soul,” it feels like something’s awakened in Donna. She addresses the loss head-on, pouring all of her musical energy into processing the heartbreak and betrayal.
This stripped-down performance finds its passion and humor in its ruefulness. Donna and Rosie and Tanya laugh throughout, their voices imbued with an eagerness for things to just go right for once. They storm around the bar where Donna has taken up as a singer, hopping on tables and chairs. It feels genuinely spontaneous, or at least as genuinely spontaneous as a highly-choreographed movie musical can feel. Until a moment of genuine surprise, an accidental shove from Rosie, sends Donna tumbling over the edge of the bar and into the arms of…Bill? Bill is back! Bill is here! It’s silly, it’s unexpected. It has all of that good Ol’ Parker warmth. It is a rescue ship out on the horizon. It is a pillar of smoke stretching out into the sky. On a desert island, the conflict is not who you’re with or where you are. It’s the march of time around you as the world spins on. What will you do with your time there? Does it even belong to you?
It’s not that these men continue to pursue Donna in an attempt to prove their goodness, or their long term intentions; they, too, are grasping at what the right thing is. They want to get closure, something you can only get in the movies. They have sought this closure across films, across time, across the world. They, like Sophie, are only guessing at what is the right, necessary, and dare I say, fun thing to do? “We will do our best,” Señor Cienfuegos says to Sophie at the start of the film, “it is all we have.”
The point of the interwoven timelines is to literally explain how the events of the first film came into being, but there’s something about the uncanny valley of it all that melts my brain, makes me feel alive and dead at the same time. Like I said, it’s the stuff of delusions, but the wonderful kind. Where Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again transcends, truly glitters, makes me cry in an earnest and unrelenting way, is in its final credits. We of a certain age remember when closing credits in a film were filled with jokes or bloopers, or maybe the cast singing a song that was either related or unrelated to the film. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again unites its characters across decades into a swirling, glittering dance floor as Cher sings “Super Trouper.” Ignoring the fact that this on its own simply rocks, what we see as the film ends are the past and present in communication with each other—young and old versions of almost all the characters serenading each other, dancing with each other. It is beautiful, rare, strange, and very, very fun.
It is interesting to see which of the young actors opt towards outright impression of their character (Tanya, for instance, is simply two near-identical Christine Baranskis) and whose is more of an interpretation. That Lily James is not just impersonating Meryl Streep flexes the imagination. To see them (yes, them, sorry) reunited at the end—clutching hands—is to take comfort in growth, in shifting, in the unexpected. There is room to change and reinvent. Nearly every single character comes out of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again having made the decision to be better, not because they were bad in the first place, but because there’s only so much time to do right by one’s family, chosen or not.
I carry Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again with me the way I do band-aids or Excedrin or a spare pen. I know it’s there in case of an emergency. I know that if someone else needs it, I can provide. It is the least grounded grounding tool in my arsenal, but I don’t know a single person it hasn’t helped—or, to use one of the film’s vocabulary words, bolstered. Everything could fall away, time could stretch on forever, but the glitter will still fall from the ceiling and at some point, eventually, dust the floor.
- I, for one, don’t mind that everyone is aping from Mr. Christopher Nolan; in fact, I love it.
- Why is it so funny to me that one of the guys’ name is Sam? I don’t know, it just feels like they gave up.
- And it almost is: the greatest threat the movie faces is a big storm––okay, maybe the characters in this franchise do know about climate change.
- Though Sam is pitched to us as Donna’s perhaps one true love, the film makes an almost aggressive case for the superiority of Bill. And isn’t Sophie blonde? Just saying.
- Didn’t they sing that one in the first movie? Yes!!!!! Shut up!