How cinema has a power to get us through very dark days (even when we least expect it).
A version of this article appeared in Film Stories issue one.
Simon Brew (@simonbrew)
Wherever I can, I avoid movie trailers. It’s not always been the easiest of jobs, given that before I landed in this parish I was editing an entertainment website for a decade. But I gradually grew into watching a film with most of its surprises intact, and I think my cinema-going experiences improved as a consequence. I did look a bit of an idiot covering my eyes and ears through Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom trailers, but that’s the price you pay. I was still aware, though, that I was going to hit trouble with the Mamma Mia! sequel when it arrived in cinemas last summer. Based around the songbook of Abba, the film on the surface looked harmless. Were it to follow the template of the perfectly fun first movie, it would be a plot sketched around a collection of Abba tunes, with the pure intention of etching a big grin onto the faces of the audience.
My life changed earlier in 2018, though. Back around Easter, my brilliant, brilliant mum fell ill. Within two months of getting a diagnosis, we’d lost her. It was so fast, so intense and such a whirlwind that it’s hard to really quantify the impact it had on my head. There was no real time to adjust, we (her included) had to deal with her illness in double-quick time, and then the rest of us with her sudden loss. The loss of anyone, I’m utterly sure I don’t have to say to any of you, is both surreal and unsteady. Surreal in that I found myself locking into practicalities of the many jobs and things that need doing in the aftermath of a loss. Unsteady in that, well, everything’s changed. Nothing’s ever the same, even though the world is going on around you.
Mum loved Abba, and got me into their music. We saw the Mamma Mia! musical when it landed in the West End, and my children all enjoyed their many times singing and dancing to ‘Dancing Queen’ with their nan. I knew that the sequel was coming, and when we first got my mum’s diagnosis, I did wonder if I’d get to take her to see it. It wasn’t to be, but I’d set in my head that I’d see the movie opening weekend. I’ve tried to not avoid difficult things, so I duly avoided the trailers, and got back to work. In the midst of all of this, I became an unreliable film reviewer. Not that I stopped watching films or hitting deadlines. More that I was struggling to snap into films I knew were good, but for some reason weren’t clicking with me. I’ve no idea whether I’d have felt the same had I not gone through the weeks before – I suspect not – but films such as Hereditary (yeah, I know), Mission: Impossible – Fallout and The Incredibles 2, which were earning raves all around me, took me more than one run. For some reason, first time around, I couldn’t click into them.
A bit pap
Time passed. My mum’s funeral was both heartbreaking and lovely. My job of over a decade had reached an endpoint. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again was fast approaching, and I duly booked tickets for opening weekend. I asked my sister along, too, who freely admitted she thought it would be “a bit pap”, and for safety’s sake I booked seats on the back row of our local cinema. A Saturday afternoon, on opening weekend.
I’m so glad I did. There’s a subset of the audience and film writers who will dismiss films such as Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again as disposable fluﬀ , but I can honestly say that it was one of the five most memorable cinema trips of my life. I knew I was in a bit of trouble when the opening titles rolled, and I could picture the times that Mum had boogied along to Abba music and shared the infectious joy of it. But then I realised what the film was about. I had no idea beforehand.
This is where we get spoilery. I was vaguely aware that there was some scheduling issue that meant Meryl Streep’s role in the Mamma Mia! sequel had been reduced somewhat. What I didn’t know was that the story was about the character of Sophie (played by Amanda Seyfried) having to deal with the loss of her mother (Streep) the year before, and of trying to find a way forward in life whilst honouring her mum and feeling the sheer loss left behind. I’ve never cried so much in a cinema, and I say this having watched Field Of Dreams on the big screen whilst sat next to my dad.
It sounds really twee, really fake, but I just lost control. There’s a scene near the very end of the film, which even if we hadn’t lost Mum would have been difficult. But in the aftermath of the grief I’ve been struggling to come to terms with, I cried, and I cried ugly. Tears, snot, red eyes, loud sobbing. I just couldn’t stop it. I can only give you an estimate of how much of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again I cried through, but I’d go a good 40-45%.
But also, I laughed. I sang (to myself). I went through a greater range of emotions watching that film, let myself go further, and got more out of that screening than any other movie I’ve watched in a cinema for years. I’d contend, incidentally, that Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is technically a really good film, too. Director Ol Parker and his team capture something here, and The Godfather Part II structure works far better than I’d have assumed had I known in advance. But more importantly to me, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again felt like an emotional detox of my system. A film that allowed me to really go with a big movie again, to follow its highs and lows, to lower my guard. To let emotions out and in.
And you know what? Even my sister confessed it wasn’t pap. And whilst that’s not a poster quote that Universal opted to go with, let me assure you it’s high praise indeed.