How ‘Mamma Mia’ Radicalized Me and Became My ‘Star Wars’

For many filmmakers of a certain age, there’s one movie that inspired them to dedicate their lives to cinema: the original Star Wars from 1977. This new take on sci-fi spectacle courtesy of George Lucas was a game-changer in every respect. It blew up possibilities of what a movie could feel and look like. No wonder folks as eclectic as David Fincher, Zack Snyder, and John Singleton have cited Star Wars as the movie that changed their lives. Stephen Colbert told a story about how he got to see this life-changing feature three weeks before its release, leaving him feeling like he’d witnessed a special epiphany nobody else could understand. James Cameron has repeatedly waxed poetic about how he immediately ditched his truck driving job to pursue directing after he saw Star Wars.

The inaugural story set in a galaxy far, far away has become a de facto answer for many when answering the question, “What movie changed your life?” Make no mistake, Star Wars certainly is great. It impacted me even decades removed from its initial release. However, thinking about this question recently, I knew my response would be different. So what was my equivalent to Star Wars? Was there a film from my generation that gripped my imagination like Star Wars did to Cameron and Colbert? Which motion picture cracked my brain into pieces and then reassembled them into a new shape capable of processing cinema’s many manifestations?

Quickly, the answer hit me: Mamma Mia.

My saga doesn’t begin in a movie theater in May 1977, but rather on a sweltering Texas day in July 2008. It’s Saturday, and I’m sitting on my parents’ bed. A Chowder rerun blares on the nearby television. My dad’s family has come over to our house for a BBQ or some other social outing. Though I love my relatives, being an autistic 12-year-old, there’s only so much socialization I can handle at once. After an hour or so of chattering with my aunts, uncles, and assorted Laman family members, I retreat to somewhere quiet and solitary.

Suddenly, the door to my parent’s room opens. It’s my Mimi and one of my aunts. They gaze at me with an excited grin. Both know I’m already a film geek who dutifully checks out any theatrical new release my parents let me see. They perfectly predict what my answer to their incoming inquiry will be. “We’re about to go see Mamma Mia at the theater, do you wanna come?” Immediately, a smile consumes my face. I had no previous plans to see Mamma Mia. But getting taken to the movie theater under any circumstances was divine.

While other kids were on their second watch of that weekend’s other new movie The Dark Knight — a movie my parents determined was too dark for my sensibilities — my relatives and I walked into our mid-afternoon Mamma Mia showing. Even in the face of Batman, the crowd at this screening was incredibly sizable. Not only that, but the moviegoers inside were chipper. The place was buzzing with energy from a crowd largely comprised of middle-aged women and a smattering of gay men. They’d spent decades knowing ABBA’s discography and the Mamma Mia stage show. Excited chatter about what this movie adaptation would look like filled every corner of the space.

By contrast, I wandered into this screening a total newbie. I had no clue what Mamma Mia was or even a specific vision of what ABBA’s music entailed. Yet the vibe in the room was infectious. I sat there excitedly munching my popcorn and absorbing trailers for 2008 movies like How To Lose Friends And Alienate People. Why was the room drenched in anticipation? What was Mamma Mia even about? What kind of cinematic experience was I about to have?

Many filmmakers recall the opening shot of Star Wars instantly astonishing them. A Star Destroyer seemingly stretching on for an eternity effortlessly conveyed the expansive scope of this fictional universe. A similar experience befell me with Mamma Mia. The opening musical number “Honey Honey” immediately gripped me hook, line, and sinker.

Mamma Mia begins with protagonist Sophie Sheridan (Amanda Seyfried) thrillingly reading her mom’s diary entries. These glimpses into the past concern Donna’s (Meryl Streep) romantic escapades in “the olden days.” Sophie and her friends gawk over these scribblings as they all croon “Honey Honey.” That was more than enough for me. Bubbly energy was practically wafting off the screen. The radiant blue water and the gorgeous foliage in the background were transfixing. The melody of this song was just so catchy and toe-tapping. The performances of Seyfried and company, meanwhile, captured such infectious excitement that I could feel those emotions swelling up in my bones.

It didn’t hurt that Mamma Mia immediately dove into the topic of sex. (That’s what all those “dot dot dot” lines in the diary entries are about, after all.) Right away, Mamma Mia registered as kind of dangerous to me as a sheltered 12-year-old in Allen, Texas. And, look, I understand that’s like declaring a Maroon 5 tune had the political subversiveness of Outkast’s “Spaghetti Junction.” But, circa 2008, I was terrified to talk about lewd stuff or even acknowledge physical intimacy’s existence around my friends. Firm abstinence-only assemblies at public school and ominous sermons about sex at my church wormed into every corner of my deeply literal autistic mind. Everything considered “adult” terrified me. I felt like talking about sex out loud would immediately incur the wrath of God and shame from every adult I knew. Crashing right into this perception was Mamma Mia.

Here was a movie with its opening song depicting Amanda Seyfried and her friends tittering over phrases like “when you do your…THING” with playful yet firm sexual energy. It was no Star Destroyer, but it was enough to rewire my brain. You could talk about lewd material in a fun way?!? Women could do that?!? And the world won’t end?!? To quote another musical movie, “Tell me more, tell me more!”

Much like watching Amy Adams galavant across the screen in Enchanted the previous November, Mamma Mia provided a welcome departure from my male-dominated pop culture palette. I spent much of my youth and teenage years nervous about associating with anything “too girly.” I had to be a “proper guy,” after all. Already filled with self-loathing out of a perception that I was “broken” as an autistic person, I couldn’t stand social rejection from my peers over registering as “too feminine.” This warped mindset deprived me of so many opportunities for joy.

I finally found respite from those thoughts in that darkened auditorium removed from the world. Concerns of how other folks my age would perceive me vanished from my mind. All that filled my field of vision was Meryl Streep in overalls singing and dancing across an island. Like witnessing Amy Adams be a goofball in Enchanted, the ladies of Mamma Mia, with their outsized desires and varied personalities, redefined my expectations for what women in cinema looked like. They also reaffirmed the kind of pop culture I loved. These were the pieces of art that allowed me to tap into my most fulfilling gender representation years before I knew the word “trans” even existed.

Despite seemingly existing just for the gays, queer depictions reside on Mamma Mia‘s margins. Only a single on-screen character is queer and you can bet he isn’t kissing dudes on-screen in a mainstream 2008 American movie. Despite that, the feature is deeply seeped in queer aesthetics. “Gay af” is the only way to describe shirtless men in scuba gear singing and dancing on a pier. What’s queerer than Christine Baranski belting out “Does Your Mother Know” to young hunks at the beach? Would a movie aimed at heterosexual audiences linger on Stellan Skarsgard’s bare butt? The examples go on and on, including the lesbian aunt vibes given off by Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya’s (Baranski) rapport. All these unabashedly queer sensibilities just kept on pouring out of the screen in Mamma Mia. This deluge of exciting gayness immediately made me realize how much fun it is submerging into those aesthetics.

Thanks to my close family friends, Uncles Doug and Mark, I knew gay people existed since I was born. However, Mamma Mia opened my eyes to how cinema could intersect with queer aesthetics. The unabashedly bubbly side of this community now inhabited a massive Cinemark screen. The sheer scope and joyous energy rejuvenated my soul. Also, Amanda Seyfried and Christine Baranski immediately provoked in me nothing short of cartoon hearts replacing my pupils. I was swooning! Even if I didn’t know it yet, I was in trans lesbian heaven in that Mamma Mia showing. The high I got off that screening informed my music tastes, personality, and visions for “my ideal self” for years to come. I wanted THAT kind of exuberant energy in my everyday life.

Being so jealous specifically of the confidence permeating Mamma Mia spoke to another internalized problem I struggled with. I was a soul gripped with timidity and concerns over exhibiting behavior that was “too autistic.” Endless strings of apologies always existed on the tip of my tongue. Living with these qualities every day, I harbored ambitions of becoming unabashedly confident. I discovered that dream mold on the silver screen in Mamma Mia. Even Pierce Brosnan’s confidence in his warbly “S.O.S.” performance deserved lionizing. If only I had that guy’s courage! He went out there and did something bold outside of his comfort zone!

As Mamma Mia continued its joyous miracles, my heart kept swooning with all the unabashedly ridiculous machinations occurring on-screen. Even when the central mother/daughter conflict was resolved, Mamma Mia director Phyllida Lloyd still delivered further energetic musical numbers like “Take a Chance on Me.” The toe-tapping set pieces and maximalist outfits continued well into the credits. Here, Donna and fellow Donna and the Dynamos members, Rosie and Tanya, belted out further ABBA tunes for the audience. Fetus gay Lisa Laman couldn’t believe her eyes. Movies could do something tantamount to an encore?!? What a joyous discovery!

I left the auditorium having experienced an eye-opening epiphany. Endless ABBA songs raced through my brain and, very soon, my green iPod nano. Mamma Mia became a passionate favorite of mine. I saw the stage version twice (once with my Uncle Doug!). Me and another friend watched it on Halloween night 2012. Singing the songs from the movie in the car eventually helped me bond with other queer friends.

Mamma Mia even influenced some of my most memorable encounters in New York City. A decade after this screening, I sat with my friends in the New York gay piano bar Marie’s Crisis. The pianist asked us for requests and, immediately, I suggested a tune from Mamma Mia. Though he claimed “that’s not really a musical,” he played the ditty anyway. Ten years later, that extravagant musical was still something I couldn’t get enough of. Its bouncy energy and irony-free depiction of extravagant musical numbers had burrowed its way into my brain.

Seeing Mamma Mia that fateful weekend instead of The Dark Knight didn’t just radicalize me immediately into a gay movie geek loser. Its wild and fun portrayals of women also guided young Lisa Laman to an important reality. Ladies in movies didn’t just have to be stiff love interests or dead moms guiding male protagonists. They could be weird, horny, and loud. That revelation informed my expansion of what “women could be,” and, eventually, that encompassed my own gender awakening. If the realm of women could include the ladies of Mamma Mia, maybe it also could make room for me!

As so many future iconic directors sitting down to watch a new 1970s sci-fi movie can attest, you never know where influential cinema can come from. That truth entered my brain that sweltering Texas afternoon in 2008. Before watching Mamma Mia, I couldn’t have imagined all the wonders this film contained, let alone how it would impact my life. At the time, I just knew the songs were catchy and that I had a crush on Amanda Seyfried! Now, though, Mamma Mia was the obvious catalyst for my life as both a film geek and a gay trans woman. See that girl, in July 2008? Watching that scene from Mamma Mia? She’s a future dancing queen! She just didn’t know it yet.

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Lisa Laman

Lisa Laman is a life-long movie fan, writer, and Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic located both on the autism spectrum and in Texas. Given that her first word was "Disney", Lisa Laman was "doomed" from the start to be a film geek! In addition to writing feature columns and reviews for Collider, her byline has been seen in outlets like Polygon, The Mary Sue, Fangoria, The Spool, and ScarleTeen. She has also presented original essays related to the world of cinema at multiple academic conferences, been a featured guest on a BBC podcast, and interviewed artists ranging from Anna Kerrigan to Mark Wahlberg. When she isn’t writing, Lisa loves karaoke, chips & queso, and rambling about Carly Rae Jepsen with friends.

Lisa has written 9 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. This is charming! Now I feel like I should figure out how to watch it…

    (I eventually watched The Dark Knight – not opening weekend but soon after. Presumably I could have seen Mamma Mia the same way, but I guess I never did. Fortunately I ended up a trans lesbian just the same 😅)

  2. I remember my local cinema did a double feature of both Mamma Mia! films in honour of the second film’s release. It was joyous. People dressed up. There was some impromptu singing and dancing. We had a grand time.

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