I don’t know much about ABBA. I know a few of their songs, ones that got so much play that you could hardly have missed them, like “Dancing Queen” and “Take a Chance on Me” and something about Hernando or Fernando or Orlando (I’m terrible at hearing lyrics). I also know it’s hip to look down your critical nose at them, like the Bee Gees and John Denver and Neil Diamond. I don’t care about that. Their songs are infectious (sometimes almost too much) and have a nice beat and great harmonies, and though I’m not a dancer, it’s obvious you can dance to them. So I didn’t approach this smash hit musical (which I knew nothing about except for the rather silly plot) based on their songs with any great dread.
But I have to say I resisted this movie’s charms for a while, mainly because the first 20 minutes or so seems to consist of nothing but various groups of girls having squealing reunions and acting very, very, very silly in the upper, painful registers of the female vocal cords, at a volume that could cut sheet metal … and in fact sometimes sounded a little like that. Uh-oh, I thought. Chick flick! (I should add that I’m a guy who does not recoil in horror at that label, but this was really too much.)
However, soon my natural love of musicals won out. That, and the amazing energy on display. There are few stretches of more than three or four minutes without a musical number, and most of them are brightly colored (like the Aegean Sea, and is it really that blue?) and full of people just having so much fun you want to join in. And that’s the impression I’m left with, of a lot of people—and I mean the actors, not the characters—having a lot of fun. And why not? Would it be too tough for you to spend a few months filming on a lovely little Greek island? I’ve often suspected that actors sometimes take roles for the opportunity to have a well-paid vacation in exotic locations. Not exotic as in Apocalypse Now out in the friggin’ swamps; I’m thinking more of Mutiny on the Bounty, in Tahiti. I even got to the point where I could tolerate listening to Pierce Brosnan singing, because he seemed to be having fun, too, and working hard not to be such a stiff.
And then there’s Meryl Streep. I already knew the lady could sing (A Prairie Home Companion, Postcards From the Edge), but I can’t recall her cutting up quite as much as she does here, and she makes it work, as she makes everything she tackles work. I understand she intended to go into opera before she became an actress. Myself, I’d like to see her do more musical work. Like, if they ever get around to doing a cinematic version of Cats (unlikely, I understand), she could do Grisabella. Or maybe Frau Blücher in Young Frankenstein, the part played in the movie by Cloris Leachman, the one who, every time someone says her name, the horses whinny in alarm. I’m sure she could nail the German accent. Or maybe most interesting of all—though I haven’t seen it—last year’s Tony-nominated musical Grey Gardens, about Jackie Kennedy’s crazy relatives, Big Edie and Little Edie. It’s a two-act musical, and the same actress plays Big Edie at age 47 and then Little Edie at 56. Sounds tailor-made for Meryl.