Seeing “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” in Sweden

A “Mamma Mia” T-shirt clad usher prepares for the crowds at a theater in Gävle, Sweden

There are 80 forest fires in Sweden right now. It’s hot as blazes. Right before I left LA, which was writhing in its own heat wave, I told people I would be going to Sweden, where the famed blue skies and refreshing air make sommar a treat, not a smog fest. Oh, how soon I would know the delights of a Nordic wind, I bragged.

Ha! This year the breeze is a brat, coy and petulant. You can’t stand in your Bjorn Borg™ underwear and coax them to your window any more than you can will ABBA to reunite in the flesh. Combined with the 50 hours of sunshine a day you get here during July, a jet-lagged person could find themselves sitting up at 3am on a balkong, fanning themselves with an article on progressive politics and looking for a rock to throw at the noisiest crybaby seagulls you’ve ever heard.

So even though I was not much of a fan of the first “Mamma Mia!”, was I tempted to go to its sequel and sit in air-conditioning for two hours to look at widescreen Greek blue oceans? Helvete yes! (Also: Cher!)

Now is the time I might mention a few things about going to the movies in Sweden that could take a little getting used to. First, forget the concept of a bargain matinee or faking your age to get the senior discount. Swedes may have universal healthcare, they may have firsthand knowledge of Ikea instructions, they may have been the first to standardize gender-neutral pronouns, but they also have seventeen dollar movie tickets. You should have seen the cashier’s face when I suggested any other price possibility. It read: “We are a people who believe in full equality, even at the cineplex” while also scanning my accent for traces of American exceptionalism. “You give us Trump, now you want to undermine our box offices!” is the undertone I detected, but I may have been projecting.

See, in the interest of having a still reasonably priced evening, my companion (hereafter, “The Swede”) and I planned to head out early in order to buy theater snacks at a friendly ekologisk co-op. We are both movie theater spendthrifts, though I admit I do feel a little bit guilty for not spending whatever it cost to buy this startlingly inclusive and apparently popular item in the theater lobby’s self-serve section:

Pride Month is August here, and this theater chain is on it!

That’s right, LGBT kids: We threw rocks at Stonewall so that someday we could buy rainbow movie popcorn!

Speaking of sugar, what image comes to mind when you think of Swedish people? Healthy, glowing, fit? Well, I am here to tell you they have a deep shadow side and it’s name is G-O-D-I-S (“C-A-N-D-Y”.) What other word did you first see within their candy word? “G-O-D”? That’s a clue. This otherwise agnostic country believes in hardened sugar with a sweet religious fervor. I have seen Swedish supermarkets tuck their fresh produce section demurely in the back in order to give valuable real estate to bins and bins of licorice fiskar, raspberry skalles, and chocolate punschknappar. It’s like Willy Wonka closed his factory and sent the contents on a Viking ship.

Exhibit A:

One supermarket’s “Godis” section, and this is just what I could fit in the frame

Exhibit B:

This turned out not to be a religious travel store, though I would say many Swedes consider it a temple

These bins of loose candy do not preclude the wrapped varieties and standard bars, trust me. I’ve seen The Swede pour a bag of loose candy into a bowl during a Netflix binge and eat it like popcorn, followed by a Reese’s chaser.

So once my companion tanked up and put the gummy contraband in his knapsack, we were ready to go. For my part, I merely smuggled in a kanelbulle (cinnamon roll) and a bottle of flavored Loka (or as we say in English, La Croix.) Forgive me Pappa Mio!

And now a word about the movie theater-going experience in Sweden vs. America. In terms of winning the Multiplex World Cup, I must chant “USA! USA! USA!” Apparently copious Nordic financial regulations did not extend to theater chains, and “SF Bio” has gobbled up its competitors to basically become the only choice (I think it’s like what happened to Saab.) Why did Stieg Larsson never write about this? It’s SF Bio all theaters, all the time, and while in America the cutthroat free market may be bringing us Dine-In “experiences” with La-Z-Boys and flights of craft beer brought to our decadent seats by crouching waiters, here in the land of encouraged moderation that is not the case. (Do I sound like a I am displaying “American moviegoer privilege?” I cop to the charge. I’m the kind of longtime movie theater junkie who will show up before a new Arclight or IMAX opens and ask for a tour. “I’m your target market,” I say briskly, like I’m buying a condo on Million-Dollar Listing.)

Here’s a picture of the building holding our local palace. Looks sleek and beautiful in scope doesn’t it?

The country of Ingmar Bergman places its cineplexes right in the middle of the town square!

But inside, you’ll find a stifling lobby (to be fair, many Swedish establishments have been caught off-guard by climate change), a cheerful but sweaty ticket taker with a fan blowing in hen face, a flight of stairs to climb (working off calories for the candy?), comfortable but standard red chairs and that most unforgivable of modern-day movie chain violations: 15 minutes of commercials before the film! Here is my report on those commercials: Do not be surprised if a Red Bull or an H & M ad is followed by a PSA warning about chlamydia complete with erotic animation. There was, I admit, a poignant short from the Swedish Public Employment Service about the need to be more inclusive of people with mobility issues in the job market, beautifully shot like a moody Nordic noir. But I was not okay with the movie trailers interspersed with the ads, instead of in their own grouping. A good platter of coming attractions provides a nice aptitretare before dinner is served, I always say.

On the plus side, be still my beating ninth-row heart — SF Bio proudly keeps the tradition of closing and re-opening a curtain before the feature begins. It adds a sense of occasion, and seemed to be much more effective at telling a socially respectful population that now was the time to silence their telefoner than the twenty ineffective reminders we get at an AMC.

In Nordic design patterns no less!

How was the main course, formally and (all too aptly) titled “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again”? Well, it’s less of a meal and more of a dessert that the host won’t stop scooping onto your plate, even if you’ve pushed the plate away. Personally, I would have thought eating candy during this jukebox musical was redundant, but the Swede has proven his genetically high tolerance blood sugar levels again and again and he toiled away.

It’s a prequel and a sequel and sometimes, it should be noted, a bit of a weakuel. There’s so much rehashing you might forget which of the two movies you’re in. There’s a decent attempt at putting some diversity into the chorus lines, but sometimes it only emphasizes the Mediterranean island setting’s blinding white…cast. Certainly don’t think too much about the Mamma Mia universe timeline. Wait, Cher is Meryl Streep’s mother? And did Andy Garcia say he met someone in 1959? What, when he was in short pantalones? For a big-budget film, it’s surprising to see how many times it looks like it was filmed on a community-theater set, or lets its moonlight scenes give you a crash course on what faking “day-for-night” is. (To be sure, you could argue that’s part of its charm.) But why quibble about piffle? An overheated moviegoer might certainly say the many shots of a gorgeous and plunge-worthy azure ocean is worth every kroner.

I wanted to like the first “Mamma Mia!” in an escapist way, but it kept clunking me on the head like the door portals on a ferryboat. Yet, I often enjoyed “Mamma Mia That’s a Swedish Meatball!” or whatever we’re calling the sequel. There are more fun anachronistic bell bottoms than you can shake a platform shoe at. When a curious running joke involving a passport official finally paid off, I laughed unreasonably. There’s a glancing reference to the Greek unemployment crisis which for a nanosecond puts you in somewhere in the recognizable world. The Swedish audience tittered at Stellan Skarsgård poking fun at himself in a fat suit. When the calvary starts to arrive in the form of boatloads of colorfully costumed villagers and a bemused Colin Firth, the movie comes to life. And you can look at the movie’s weird blend of sex positivity and chaste bedroom discretion and not be too bothered.

The prequel cast of Lily James and three young suitors are pretty to look at and have fun mimicking the gestures of the elder actors they play. Christine Baranski makes the most of her “It’s-funny-because she’s-a-mature-woman-and-she-still-has-a-sex-drive” jokes. The always-welcome and debonair Mr. Garcia seems to be making a new career out of being a go-to romantic “zaddy.” Ms. Streep’s moments are brief and poignant. It’s all okej.

And then, like the true Goddess-Ex-Machina that she is, Cher swoops in. She looks glamorous if a tiny bit frail, and by now we’ve all seen her wear enough wigs to spend a few seconds staring at the screen and contemplating, “But why platinum?” I feared that the thud of a “joke” in the trailer (“That’s the best kind of party, little girl”), which by the way, still landed with a thud with my audience, would be all she got to deliver. But, Chiquitita, fear not, and heed this non-spoiler alert! She is given “Fernando” to sing, and Fernando turns out to be who you might guess it is, and for a moment, this movie actually turns into a real musical, and not supermarket baklava.

It’s enough to make you grieve that as good as Cher was as a dramatic actress, nobody put her in a serious romantic musical. (And yes, I’m overlooking “Burlesque.”) Someone out there, please? I’d also consider a sharply filmed operetta composed of her wicked Twitter feed.

How did the audience at the Gävle SF Bio on a Friday night react? Well, much to my disappointment, there was no spontaneous sing-along, although there were definitely some hum-alongs. I hoped for someone dancing in the aisles, but that would be quite unusual. I’m not sure if it’s a leftover from another time, but we could say that “standing out from the crowd” is not a hallmark of the Swedish temperament. I’m an introvert but when I dine out with The Swede over here and I ask the waiter for even an extra napkin, there is much looking away and coughing and I swear he turns to the next table and whispers, “He’s American!”

There was a definite pronounced and respectful gasp in the crowd when ABBA members Benny and Björn showed up in tiny cameos. This knowledgeable crowd seemed to welcome the sequel’s use of “deep cuts” from the ABBA songbook with a gentle and knowing “Ja, ja!” And as you can see in the pic below, the film is played without dubbing and with subtitles so the audience often read ahead and laughed before the actor delivered the punchline. It felt like going to the movies with psychics.

Oddly, my eyes kept reading the subtitles even though I don’t speak Swedish

At the end, I was happy and sated, but I did have one lingering question that bothers me about the stage show and films. If you ever visit Sweden in the summertime (and I recommend it before global warming turns it into Arizona), you will find that this beautiful country has much shimmery scenery and a gorgeous blueness of ocean and sky all on its own. Why did a movie with ABBA music have to be set in Greece, lovely as it is? I’d have loved to have seen “Take a Chance on Me” set amidst the cobbled streets and air balloons of the magical Stockholm harbor and I can assure you that you could cast a very tan and handsome set of extras for “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight.)”

But in the interest of not imposing my USA/POV onto the Swedish connection to ABBA, and out of genuine interest, here are a few brief interviews with Swedish filmgoers after the movie or on the streets of Gävle. These people were lovely.

With Leif, a male health care worker

Couch Tamale: Why do you like ABBA?

Leif: The members of ABBA are humble and soft-spoken people with self-distance and they never act with a diva behavior despite their celebrity status. They never put themselves on a pedestal, that is done by fans around the world.

CT: What is your favorite ABBA song?

L: My favorite song is “That’s Me” because it makes me happy and to feel like dancing. And that is also true about “Dancing Queen”, a song that has an impact on people no matter what their status, age, sexuality or gender or where they are in the world. Only a special song can create such a universal positive feeling.

With Kirstin, a staff member at the movie theater

CT: Has the sequel done well in ticket sales?

Kirstin: Oh yes! We’ve had sold-out showings each night. Maybe not tonight though, because there is a break in the weather.

CT: Have you seen it?

Kirstin: Not yet, I’m working too much. I plan to see on my vacation.

CT: Will you get about four-weeks off?

Kirstin: Yes. I am sorry about the small amount. Perhaps next year I will get the full six.

With Erik, a local musician and music critic, and Bengt, a drummer and grade school music teacher.

CT: How do you think ABBA represents Swedish music?

Erik: I think ABBA represents Sweden in the best way. It’s the very strong Scandinavian melodic tradition combined with a bittersweet touch that the band were champions of.

CT: Was it ever uncool to like ABBA?

Bengt: Oh, it was uncool when I was a teenager. My sister liked them. But I don’t know when it started to change for me. It was after they had disappeared for a while, and I could discover them on my own. Now I love them, I think they are so unique. It must be the combination of Benny and Björn, the pop feeling and for me, the dark voice of Frida. Everyone loves the lighter Agnetha, but I think Frida is the underrated secret weapon of ABBA. She adds the darkness.

CT: And the darkness is necessary in Sweden?

B: Have you ever been here for winter?

CT: Do you have a favorite ABBA song?

E: My favorite song is “Knowing Me Knowing You.” It has everything. The lyrics are sad, but still it’s a catchy tune with a great pop chorus hook that everyone can sing along to.

B: At first I would say “The Winner Takes It All” because it’s so perfect and heartbreaking. But maybe I would go with “Our Last Summer.” (starts singing) “I can still recall/our last summer…”

CT: I will recall this one.

B: I will say one thing more. If you think of it, people love ABBA because they are unique. You have heard many bands copy or be “inspired” by other bands. But have you ever seen anyone really be able to imitate ABBA? It’s impossible.

Swedish adolescent girl, whose name I unfortunately did not catch

CT: Did you enjoy the movie?

Swedish teen: I loved it!

CT: What was your favorite musical number?

ST: When Donna sang “I Have a Dream.” I feel that perfectly. I’m sorry, my English isn’t so good. I can say this: It was super!

CT: “Super Trouper?”

ST: (rolls eyes but fakes a polite “Ja!”)

“The Swede”, accountant, musician (did I mention everyone is a musician in Sweden) and teacher

TS: I liked the way they wove the two storylines together, and even though it was almost two hours it went by quickly.

CT: Leaving enough time to stop on the way home and get some…

TS: Godis

Film, Music, Peak TV, Diversity— Tom Cendejas is sitting on a sofa and unwrapping Pop Culture with a Latino eye, one husk at a time. tomcend@gmail.com

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