It's a good year to be an Abba fan. This week, cinemas the world over will be awash with audiences crooning along to the sounds of the Swedish pop quartet for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, the all-singing, all-dancing sequel to the 2008 mega-hit Mamma Mia!. This musical romance is set on the Greek island of Kalokairi, and continues the story of Sophie, her mother Donna and others – all set to the songs of Abba.
Made for just US$52 million (Dh190.9m), Mamma Mia! made a staggering $609m at the global box office. It didn't stop there – sing-along screenings where audience vocal participation is actively encouraged also became hugely popular. For some of the actors, it opened up a whole new avenue. "I didn't have a very solid fanbase among 4-year-old girls before that!" laughs Swedish star Stellan Skarsgard. "It's good for the future. They're 14 now!"
Just in case it had slipped your mind, the original revolved around bride-to-be Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) and her paternity mystery. Her mother Donna (Meryl Streep) had three suitors back in the day – Swedish adventurer/writer Bill Anderson (Skarsgard), British banker Harry bright (Colin Firth) and Irish-American architect Sam Carmichael (Pierce Brosnan), all unsure if they were Sophie's father. So successful was the mix of Abba standards and sun-drenched romance that hardcore fans remain very protective.
Hesitation for a sequel
"I was potentially cynical," admits Lily James, the British actress who joins the cast as the young version of Donna. Such was the beloved nature of the first film – based on the equally successful stage show that was launched in 1999 – her reticence was understandable. "[I thought] 'Oh, is this going to be great? Am I going to like it?' But it was my favourite job I've ever done." Why? "Dancing to Abba on boats in the middle of the sea."
Written and directed by Ol Parker, who previously penned the screenplay for the runaway hit The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel, the action takes place five years after the original, with Sophie now pregnant. But as Seyfried notes, the film is "a sequel but it's also a prequel", with a wraparound story that digs into Donna's past – how she came to run a villa in Greece, front her band The Dynamos and first meet Sam, Harry and Bill. For James, it was sheer unadulterated fun.
"With Mamma Mia 2, you couldn't have any dark thoughts in your head! Literally, there was no space for that," she says. Then again, in a film where she plays the younger version of Meryl Streep, it's unlikely you'll be getting too gloomy. Among the Abba songs that James tackles are Waterloo, The Name of the Game, I Have A Dream and Knowing Me, Knowing You.
Like James, Abba's Benny Andersson was initially uncertain about making a sequel. He didn't want to taint the memory of the original. "That was such a fantastically joyful experience," he says. "It was." Along with fellow band member Bjorn Ulvaeus, Andersson was responsible for writing the band's remarkable string of hits that led to more than 375 million record sales worldwide.
For Mamma Mia!, Andersson worked as executive producer and co-composed some additional music. This time around, with Ulvaeus taking a back seat, he worked with the cast recording seventeen Abba songs at the famous Abbey Road studios in London. Needless to say, some actors are more gifted than others at the microphone. "I saw the pain in [Andersson's] eyes and his ears and in his face, when I was slaughtering an Abba song," smiles Skarsgard.
The revival of Abba
For Andersson, it's all part of an eternal interest in the Swedish pop group that he's at a loss to understand. "I can't explain that. I don't know how it happened," he shrugs. "We've been lucky. After we finished, we thought: 'We have a year, maybe two.' And the records sales would then fade away, which they actually did." It was 1982 when Andersson, Ulvaeus and singers Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad called it a day, just eight years after they'd burst onto the scene winning the Eurovision Song Contest with 1974's Waterloo.
Curiously, the Abba revival has a strong link to the movies. "Someone made a great film in Australia, Muriel's Wedding," says Andersson. Starring Toni Collette as an Abba-loving daydreamer, the Golden Globe-nominated comedy helped spark a renewed global interest in the Scandinavian group's music.
Already this was underway, with British band Erasure covering Abba songs in concerts and releasing Take A Chance On Me in 1992, the same year the belated compilation Abba Gold became the band's bestselling album of all time. "So all of a sudden, things began to stir," says Andersson. "Things have been working with our stuff without us having to do anything."
Still, it was Mamma Mia! that reminded the world of the infernally catchy nature of the band's songs. The stage show has been seen by 60 million people internationally, grossing close to US$2 billion. "I've seen it so many times. My love for Abba grew from the show," says James, who went from watching it as a birthday treat with her family to re-watching it when friends of hers were cast as Sophie on stage.
When it came to the sequel, everyone returned for this most joyous of family reunions including Julie Walters and Christine Baranski as Dynamos band members Rosie and Tanya. But there were more surprises in store. "I was on set with Cher!" exclaims James. The iconic movie star and singer hasn't made a big-screen appearance since 2010's Burlesque. But here, her hair dyed platinum blonde, she plays Donna's mother Ruby Sheridan.
Even better for Abba fans was the recent news that the band had gone back to the studio, after 35 years apart, to record two new songs. Coming as a result are plans for a stage show, with the band being represented by digital avatars, and Andersson is determined to keep challenging himself. "Instead of doing the same thing over and over again, it helps you stay healthy and happy." Who knows? Now they're back together, maybe they're already writing songs for Mamma Mia 3.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again opens in cinemas on July 19th