How I Keep Calm: The Mamma Mia Cinematic Universe

Watching Meryl Streep sing ABBA in overalls on a fake Greek island is soothing to my soul.

Mamma Mia (2008) and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018) are the two best movies in existence. No, I will not take any dissenting arguments.

I’m not sure when my love for Mamma Mia began. What I do know: My parents took my sister and I to see the show on Broadway when we were little. What I also know: I brought a DVD of the first film with me to college, and it became my go-to calm down when I felt sad, stressed, or otherwise verklempt. And, in my “adult” “life,” I still turn to the Mamma Mia films — and soundtracks — to help me through difficult times, including, yes, pandemics.

In other words: The Mamma Mia cinematic universe is how I calm down, because watching Meryl Streep (and Lily James) sing ABBA in overalls on a fake Greek island is soothing to my soul.

For those who are somehow unaware of this cinematic musical masterpiece, the plot is bonkers: It takes places on the fictional Greek island of Kalokairi, where Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), 20, is getting ready to marry Sky (Dominic Cooper), age unknown. She wants her dad to walk her down the aisle, so she secretly sends three wedding invitations to men (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgård) she read about in her mom’s diary — men who could be her dad. Her mom, Donna (MERYL STREEP), doesn’t know Sophie has invited her ex-lovers. Chaos — and A-list stars singing ABBA songs — ensues.

Mamma Mia (2008) was adapted from a stage musical that first opened on London’s West End in April 1999 (it’s still playing there. I saw it with dear friends in September 2018). The show then transferred to Broadway, where it opened on October 18, 2001, a little over a month after the September 11th attacks. Björn Ulvaeus (member of ABBA, one of the creators of Mamma Mia) found himself asking right after the horrific attack, “Can we really go on with this?” Yet, Ulvaeus and the Mamma Mia team decided to go ahead with the October 2001 premiere. Why? “This is how you fight back, this is how you don’t give in.” The fun and joy of the musical was necessary and needed, they decided.

And, to be honest, it’s always what I need. The music is infectious and joyous — you cannot help but smile, and you cannot resist getting up to dance. The plot barely makes sense, but that’s okay. It’s romantic and silly and, again, it features Meryl Streep singing in overalls.

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On the set of Mamma Mia (photo by Brgitte Lacombe, 2007)

I cannot tell you how many nights I’ve been scrolling through Netflix, feeling completely unsatisfied by the thousands of options, and I end up plopping in my DVD of Mamma Mia. Going through a breakup? Watch Mamma Mia (and drink copious amounts of wine). Getting rejected by jobs, or grad school, or anything else? Watch Mamma Mia. Stressed about the world? Mamma. Mia.

A third of the way through the first film, when Donna is crying after seeing her ex-lovers gathered back on the Greek island, her friends Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters) cheer her up by singing “Chiquitita.” They sing, “Chiquitita, tell me the truth / I’m a shoulder you can cry on / Your best friend / I’m the one you must rely on.” Not only does Mamma Mia bring me comfort, but it reminds me how grateful I am to have best friends who have shoulders I can cry on, and ones who adore Mamma Mia as much as I do and will happily join me in a rewatch (virtually for now, of course).

After “Chiquitita,” the three of them run off to Donna’s room, where Donna is still upset. Rosie and Tanya try to shake her out of it, telling her: “Grow back down again!” “Screw them if they can’t take a joke!” Then they immediately break into “Dancing Queen,” which ends up gathering all the women on this island into a massive dance party that ends with Meryl Streep pushing Christine and Julie into the water, then following them with a cannonball:

Again, this movie is PURE JOY.

After you’re done watching Mamma Mia, the sequel is even more bonkers, and makes less sense, plot-wise. The basic plot: Donna has died, and Sophie is opening a luxury hotel on Kalokairi — but a storm threatens the opening night party. On top of that, we flash back to Donna (Lily James) in the ’70s having flings with Bill, Sam, and Harry (Josh Dylan, Jeremy Irvine, and Hugh Skinner, respectively) and singing with her pals Rosie (Alexa Davies) and Tanya (Jessica Kennan Wynn). The entire plot of Mamma Mia is essentially Sophie trying to figure out who her dad is, and then realizing it doesn’t matter. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is just watching Donna have flings with all these different men.

Also, there’s Cher. (I mean, how does Cher, 73, play the mom of Meryl, 70!?! It doesn’t matter!) Oh, and Andy Garcia plays a character named Fernando, so Cher can sing “Fernando.” It’s incredible. And again, a cinematic masterpiece.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again came out in the summer of 2018, and brought back the majority of the cast — except Meryl, who only made appearances in two songs. When I saw the movie on opening night in a full theater in Manhattan, I sobbed at her appearance, singing “My Love, My Life.” The song is all about how your mom will always be there, even when she’s not there. And the last song, “Super Trouper,” when the entire cast — young and old — gets together in flared pants and glitter to sing a song, will literally always make me feel better. I dare you to watch this and not smile:

But what makes the sequel, truly, is Lily James — who steps into Meryl Streep’s overalls as a young Donna. Like Meryl, Lily is magnetic. She starts singing, and all your worries truly disappear.

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Anyway, yes, there are a lot of reasons to feel a ton of anxiety right now. And yes, we are in “Peak TV” and there is plenty of new content to stream. But will any of it make me feel as good as sitting in my pajamas and watching Mamma Mia for the zillionth time? I really don’t think so.

how I keep calm

How I Keep Calm is our new series featuring different ways people manage anxiety. If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail with “How I Keep Calm” in the subject line.

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