Not like that

Why the MAMMA MIA! movie won’t include a new ABBA song

Since the announcement of the movie version of the stage musical MAMMA MIA! (“based on the songs of ABBA”, in case you didn’t know), there’s been conjecture across ABBA fandom that this will be the perfect opportunity for an unreleased ABBA song to be included in the movie, which of course would then have to be released on the soundtrack or as a single; or for Benny and Björn to write a brand new “ABBA” song. Either so they would be eligible for Best Song awards in the 2009 season, especially the Oscars. There have also been suggestions of them writing new score music for the film.

But there are several reasons why any of these are unlikely to happen.

An unreleased song

The inclusion of one of the legendary unreleased ABBA songs still in “the vaults” is not surprisingly the most discussed and most popular topic in the various ABBA forums – especially the 1982 recording ‘Just Like That’.

Unfortunately, that’s an unlikely scenario for the film. Award rules generally state that for a song to be eligible a song must be written for the specific project – it cannot be an old song, no matter that it’s never been released. It was for the same reason that no songs from MAMMA MIA! were eligible for the Tony Awards (the American Theatre Wing’s Awards for Excellence on Broadway) in 2002, though the musical itself was nominated for several other awards, ultimately winning none.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) Rule 16 states that to be eligible for the Original Song category, “An original song consists of words and music, both of which are original and written specifically for the film.” and ” The work must be the result of a creative interaction between the filmmaker(s) and the composer(s) or songwriter(s) who have been engaged to work directly on the film.”

Björn and Benny (and also Agnetha and Frida) are notoriously against releasing songs that weren't released at the time. They begrudgingly allowed several to be included on the 1994 four CD box set Thank You For The Music, though not as many as originally planned. Since then they’ve been adamant against the release of any more, despite constant queries, petitions from fans or proposals from ABBA’s record company.

Regarding ‘Just Like That’ in particular, another strike against the release of the full ABBA recording is that most of the melody has subsequently been used in other songs - the guitar riff from one of the early versions in ABBA's ‘Under Attack’ (1982), most of the chorus in Gemini's version of ‘Just Like That’ (1985), and the verse in ‘Glöm mig om du kan’ in Chess på svenska (Chess in Swedish - 2002). Björn and Benny regard the Gemini recording - which had an all-new verse and partially rewritten chorus - as the final version, and do not think that there can be two similar songs with the same title out in the world.

Ironically, ‘Just Like That’ was actually in the musical during rehearsals, only dropped just before the first previews. In fact, it was still listed in the programme during the two weeks of previews, right up to the night of the world premiere, where it was described as a duet between the two young lovers, Sophie and Sky. It came early in Act One, after ‘Summer Night City’ (itself dropped during previews) and before ‘Money, Money, Money’. (see here for that original running order)

A new song/an ABBA reunion

Another extremely popular point of discussion is for Benny and Björn to write a “new ABBA song” for the movie.

There has been precedent, with the original composers of musicals such as Evita, Chicago and Dreamgirls writing new songs for the film versions, in some cases successfully winning “best song in a motion picture” awards, including the Oscar.

The premise of MAMMA MIA! is that it is “based on the songs of ABBA”. For Benny and Björn to write a new song in 2007, though they were half of ABBA, would not be an ABBA song. Benny and Björn continue to compose together over 40 years since they first met, so it is not impossible for them to write a new song together. However, a new song by Benny and Björn would not be an “ABBA” song, just as the musicals Chess and Kristina från Duvemåla, or the songs recorded by Gemini, Josefin Nilsson, BAO and others are not ABBA songs.

It’s also been suggested that Frida and Agnetha join Benny and Björn in recording the new songs, thus making a “brand new ABBA song”, not to mention the longed for ABBA reunion. This also seems highly unlikely. Though various former ABBA members have responded to interviewers that they would be partial to a reunion at different times over that last 25 years, it’s obvious from their actions that none of them really have any interest. Famously, when refusing the alleged one billion dollar reunion offer, they announced that it would take “something special” for a reunion, that something special they had in mind being made obvious by several get-togethers to sing together for milestone birthdays for close personal friends, most recently for Görel Hanser’s 50th birthday in June 1999. Excluding possible future private performances like this, it’s extremely doubtful that we will ever see an ABBA reunion, for this film or any other occasion.

Film score

A third suggestion that has been put forward is that Benny and Björn might write score music for scenes between songs. Again, given the premise of the musical, it seems more likely that any background score might be based in existing ABBA music, just as the ‘Overture’ and ‘Entr’acte’ in the stage musical are based on a mix of ABBA tunes.

Of course, this is all just conjecture. They may yet surprise us by including new music in the film.

Recording of the songs for the film began in the last week of February 2007, featuring Benny on keyboards and several of the musicians who played on ABBA’s recordings, including guitarist Lasse Wellander, bassist Rutger Gunnarsson and drummer Per Lindvall. Presumably, the music will be produced by Benny and Björn. The world premiere of the film has been announced as 18 July 2008.

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30 March 2007

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