There’s no genre more cinematic than the musical. Perfect blends of sound and image, musicals feed on all levels of movement — actors’ bodies, musical notes and the camera itself. In other words, they’re pure feeling. Movie musicals are rarer now than they were 50 years ago, but 2008’s “Mamma Mia!,” a jukebox musical set to the songs of Swedish band ABBA, was a bona fide hit. Ten years later, the cast returns for a more ambitious follow up with “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” and it’s just about the loveliest thing you’ll see this year.
Five years after the events of “Mamma Mia!,” the overall-clad singer/hotel owner Donna Sheridan (Meryl Streep) has passed away. Her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is remodeling the new Hotel Bella Donna on the Greek island she calls home. Sophie deals with her fiance Sky’s (Dominic Cooper) work problems while planning the grand opening party with the hotel’s mysterious manager, Mr. Cienfuegos (Andy Garcia). Before the first film’s gang — including Donna’s friends Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters) — gathers for the party, the island suffers a major storm, which shuts down all travel. Sophie has to scramble to salvage the re-opening, while her three potential fathers Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Harry (Colin Firth) put their heads together to help.
Taking on a dual prequel-sequel structure, “Here We Go Again” cuts between this central storyline and one of Donna’s young adulthood, depicting her discovery of the island and original relationships with Sam, Bill and Harry (played in their younger incarnations by Jeremy Irvine, Josh Dylan and Hugh Skinner, respectively). In the prequel half, Lily James takes over for Streep as Donna. It’s all reminiscent of one of the most famous sequels in movie history: Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather Part II,” which also employed parallel narratives. Similar to that film, the younger performers steal the show — James is a revelation here as Donna. She truly feels like a youthful Streep and carries her scenes with a sparkling wit and sweet aura that could slap a smile across the most cynical of faces. She’s a born movie star, and her costars are dead ringers for their older counterparts. The returning cast is as fantastic as ever, and, to make things even better, legendary singer and actress Cher stars as Sophie’s grandmother, Ruby.
In his first major studio gig, director Ol Parker runs with the material he’s given. His direction is slick and stylish, always playing with the bridge between past and present in playful ways. There are many graphic matches between scenes which emphasize the parallels between James’ Donna and Seyfried’s Sophie, as well as a number of truly impressive mirror shots that blend the two timelines. It’s nearly cerebral, but never draws attention to itself, sweeping along with its characters’ movements. Working hand in hand with cinematographer Robert Yeoman and editor Peter Lambert, Parker breathes aesthetic life into the sunny spectacle. His direction is selfless toward the narrative, thoughtfully ambitious when there’s room to breathe but never showing its hand — and always an immense pleasure to watch. He co-writes the screenplay with original scribes Catherine Johnson and Richard Curtis, whose trademark humor is all over the script. Baranski’s delivery of “Be still my beating vagina” is a strong contender for line reading of the year, and it’s that breezy hilarity that makes the film so infectiously fun.
But “Here We Go Again” wouldn’t be the success it is without a strong emotional core. This is no pointless, cynical Hollywood cash grab. It builds on previous character arcs beautifully, harmonizing the context of the past with the conflict of the present. In particular, the mother-daughter relationship between Donna and Sophie is incredibly moving, and it coalesces into a rendition of “My Love, My Life” that won’t leave a dry eye in the house.
As expected, the music is fantastic. “My Love, My Life” may be the emotional high point of the musical numbers, but there’s a true diversity in tone and choreography that makes each song its own unique pop confection. James and Skinner’s performance of “Waterloo” is as good as cinema gets, a massive song-and-dance complete with immaculately-costumed extras and slapstick humor. An excellent, graduation-set “When I Kissed the Teacher” kicks things off with a bang, and Cher and Garcia’s melancholy duet of “Fernando” is an absolute show-stopper. Sure, the ways that ABBA’s songs are jammed into the diegesis only become more ridiculous as the film goes on, but that’s all part of the fun. Parker and company know exactly what kind of film they’re making, and they stick to their guns, hitting bullseye after bullseye.
Yes, “Here We Go Again” is cheesy and cliche. Yes, it’s silly and bound to roll some eyes. But it’s the kind of film we need more of — a rewarding entertainment, one with genuine craft, with a heart so big it bursts through the screen. It’s a work of art that isn’t afraid to embrace us with open arms, all without an ounce of snark. This is why we go to the movies. If you find a more joyous film this year, come find me. I’ll be dancing in the aisles, singing my heart out.