Unsold on song
Mamma Mia! the big-screen adaptation of the ABBA stage musical is coming your way. How can we resist you? Eddie Harrison can think of several reasons
Set on a sun-kissed Mediterranean island, musical blockbuster Mamma Mia! features Meryl Streep as the mother of Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), a bride-to-be trying to identify her natural father amongst three wedding guests, played by Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and token Scandinavian Stellan Skarsgård.
Those who have been burned once before will note that the stars of the ABBA songfest are not trained singers, they’re singing actors, all without a musical track record. Meryl Streep’s appearance as a violin teacher in Wes Craven’s Music of the Heart ranks amongst the most stomach-churning items in the veteran horror-director’s career, and yes, Firth performed ‘Love Is In The Air’ in St Trinian’s, but is this sufficient reason for us to take a chance on Firth and Pierce Brosnan performing cruise-liner kitsch classics like ‘I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do’ or ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)?’
You could blame this new enthusiasm for singing actors on technology, or more specifically, pitch correction software. An actor who can’t quite hit the notes on stage, or even in the recording studio, can have their vocal performances edited, merged and adjusted to produce stellar vocal impersonations such as Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash or Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles. However a trip to your local charity shop will quickly reveal the misguided musical outings of stars such as Kevin Bacon, Jeff Bridges, Zooey Deschanel, Joe Pesci or Telly Savalas.
Before technology caught up with the aspirations of the vain, singing actors were strictly a novelty. Lee Marvin had a novelty hit with ‘Wandering Star’ from 1969 musical western Paint Your Wagon, but Clint Eastwood’s album of ‘cowboy favourites’ lies forgotten, whilst Peter O’Toole’s attempt to sing-a-long to Joe Darion and Mitch Leigh’s appalling Quixote musical Man of La Mancha are best left to rot. Will Smith, Bruce Willis and David Soul got away with the pop-star lark for a couple of albums, but Don Johnson and Eddie Murphy were apprehended more quickly.
When Natalie Wood or Audrey Hepburn couldn’t hit the high notes in West Side Story or My Fair Lady, lip-synching to singer Marni Nixon’s vocal talents maintained the illusion. The gruesome alternative is Elizabeth Taylor’s nails-to-the-blackboard performance of ‘Send In the Clowns’ in A Little Night Music.
Yet it is possible for singing actors to triumph; Richard Gere courageously channelled the spirit of super-trouper Bruce Forsyth to perform ‘Give Them The Old Razzle Dazzle’ in Rob Marshall’s Chicago, whilst Hugh Jackman, despite huge Broadway success, prefers to maintain his butch on-screen persona until the right musical allows him to strut his leopard-skin trousers.
Whether Streep, Firth and Brosnan can show him how the transition is done is debatable – and as ABBA noted, ‘The Winner Takes It All’ in the cutthroat world of screen musicals.
Mamma Mia! is on general release from Fri 11 Jul.