I know I’m late in watching it, but recently I finally got around to seeing Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, and I have some thoughts that need expressing. We watched it on my birthday, and I was really looking forward to it. I loved the first film, and expected a fun time in the sequel. But after watching it, I found I needed a palate cleanser, something to wash the awful taste out of my mouth. So, we watched Across the Universe, another jukebox musical that came out just a short time before Mamma Mia.
For those who aren’t aware, ‘jukebox musical’ normally means taking pre-existing songs and fitting a story around them, rather than creating story and songs together. There’s a lot out there, covering songwriters, bands, or genres and eras of music. Rock of Ages is one, and unless they are really bad, I do tend to like them. I have a particular soft spot for musicals anyway, but there’s something about jukebox ones that can be really comforting.
I really liked Mamma Mia, and Across the Universe became one of my favourite films from the moment I saw it. Sorry, ABBA, as much as I like your songs, The Beatles just have some consistently great ones, even outside their standard ‘hits’. Across the Universe provides a lens into the 60s, taking stock of a turbulent, changing time, during which The Beatles rose to stardom. The film starts out with all the hope and joy of the early 60s, before we see the true effects Vietnam has on the soldiers and civilians who remain at home, as well as the fear, tension, and destruction working through the US.
Mamma Mia is as different from Across the Universe as, well, as ABBA is as different to The Beatles. It’s set in that sort of timeless ‘present day’, on a remote Greek island. There’s some hints of technology, but not enough to really ‘break into’ the utopia of the island itself. The plot revolves around Donna, who used to front an all-girl group, until she had her daughter Sophie. All grown up, Sophie is about to get married, and she wants her father present. Only problem is, there’s three possibilities as to who her father might be, so she invites all three.
They are both good films, both worthy of merit for different reasons. But honestly, it feels like ever since it came out, Across the Universe feels like it has been hugely underrated, especially in the wake of Mamma Mia, an absolute powerhouse of a film. It’s easy to see why. Across the Universe, with nods to Hair as well as cameos by Joe Cocker, Eddie Izzard and others, is about society – about war and racism and sexuality, about exploring who you really are as the world around you changes. Mamma Mia is a feel good romp.
Shortly after seeing Universe for the first time, I read an interview with director Julie Taymor, where she explained there were plenty more Beatles songs to do a sequel, and she had the idea for one, too. Thirteen years later, we still don’t have an Across the Universe 2, but you know what we do have?
We went there. Again. The same island. Same characters. And the cast in this is really good – the younger versions of the women matched really well, the younger versions of the men…sort of match. Seriously, at least get people of the same singing ability? But overall the strongest elements of this cast were woefully underused.
Here We Go Again is set after Donna (Meryl Streep) dies. Sophie is trying to cope with fulfilling her mother’s dream, planning an opening night of the hotel, wondering whether or not she should invite her grandmother, and upset that two of her fathers can’t make it to the party. As that story progresses, we get flashbacks of young Donna (Lily James) meeting the three men who would become her daughter’s Possible Dads, then Actual Dads.
So firstly, what the actual hell? Donna spent almost her whole life preparing that hotel, creating it, and she doesn’t even get to see it evolve into what she wanted? Harry and Donna reconnect in the first film and don’t get any time together at all before she dies. Sophie spent the first film realising she didn’t want her mother’s life on the island, only to now change her mind? Harry found love in the first film, and though I think you see the boyfriend briefly, there’s little to show that relationship, too. It’s the kind of sequel that is sort of infuriating, in the way it ignores character development.
Okay, Across the Universe isn’t a perfect film. At times it makes very little sense, it can seem like a series of music videos strung together, but it does this while having interesting characters, a diverse cast (though the main three are cis het white), and social commentary.
Both Mamma Mia and Universe have heart and warmth. Different styles, different tones, with Universe being, at times, darker and more serious.
Thing is, The Beatles back catalogue is much more extensive than Mamma Mia’s, and it’s clear in Here We Go Again they were really struggling for songs. The songs in the film are either ones we already saw in Mamma Mia – in the case of Dancing Queen, they even copied the scene almost shot for bloody shot – or ones which are probably unknown except to die-hard ABBA fans.
Considering a lot of the film focuses on Sophie losing her mother, and the rest of the cast dealing with their grief, I honestly expected to tear up more while watching it. But something about the film felt off, it lacked the heart and warmth I mentioned earlier that the first film had. Until (yeah, more spoilers here) one of the final songs, where Meryl Streep appears.
Basically, Meryl Streep and Cher are both in this film and both are woefully underused. Cher turns up and is suddenly “oh I want to be a grandmother” after putting Donna through hell, and everyone is okay with that? It would have been a much more interesting film if Donna hadn’t died off-screen – give us the three generations of women, butting heads yet ultimately reconciling, and the flashbacks could have still been worked in! Though maybe amended a little, rather than having one of the boys burst into song in the middle of a restaurant – a restaurant in Paris, by the way, where the staff are dressed as Napoleon and French soldiers and, um, he sings Waterloo. (MAKE IT MAKE SENSE, PLEASE!)
Essentially, they could have done something really interesting with the sequel, involving all the cast. Instead, we get an absolute mess, some truly WTF choices, and characters that don’t really feel like they went through the first film at all.
Mamma Mia, in itself, was a gem, a complete story, an absolutely brilliantly fun time. Across the Universe has layers upon layers and the possibility to add more. The story itself could even shift away from Max, Jude and Lucy – or remain with them! – and still keep the heart of the original.
Yeah, I’m a little annoyed (hence the long post – sorry!) but I feel like Here We Go Again could have been so much better, or just left alone, and Across the Universe…ugh, I’m still holding out hope for a sequel to that one day.