Escapism and Nostalgia in the Film Musical

The Case of "Mamma Mia!"

Bachelor Thesis, 2017

29 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Film Musical
2.1 Definition of Film Musical
2.2 Evolution of Film Musical in Pop-Context

3. Features of Film Musical
3.1 Escapism
3.2 Nostalgia
3.3 Participation

4. The Phenomenon ABBA
4.1 ABBA – the Swedish Pop Band
4.2 Factors of Success
4.2.1 The Band in Pop-Context
4.2.2 Audience
4.2.3 Artificiality
4.2.4 Personal Relations within ABBA

5. Mamma Mia! –the Film Musical
5.1 Development of Mamma Mia! – The Musical to Mamma Mia! - The Film
5.2 Reasons for Production of Mamma Mia! – The Musical under Judy Craymer
5.3 Realization under the film director Phyllida Lloyd

6. Escapism, Nostalgia, and Participation in Mamma Mia!
6.1 Examples of Escapism in Mamma Mia!
6.1.1 Examples of Nostalgia in Mamma Mia!
6.1.2 Examples of Participation in Mamma Mia!

7. Prospects of the presence of ABBA in the future

Works Cited

1. Introduction

“[…] Now its history / I’ve played all my cards / And that’s what you’ve done too / Nothing more to say / No more ace to play […]” (ABBA).

Sometimes things change and are over. They lie in the past. In this short excerpt of the song “The Winner Takes It All”, the pain and sorrow of broken love are examined. Basically, the topic of the song has not much to do with the main thesis of this paper. Nevertheless, the meta-level of “The Winner Takes It All” has a nostalgic undertone to escape to the good old times in the past and clarifies that there is always a winner and loser in the end. Where can ABBA be classified? They broke up as a band over 20 years ago, but are they nowadays categorized as losers or winners?

This thought leads to the question, what the motives to produce a film musical, “Mamma Mia!”, after all these years, were. Therefore, the research paper offers the fol- lowing question: Is the film musical Mamma Mia! an example for a nostalgic, escaping desire to relive the era of ABBA the band and its music or can the film be seen as a work of art detached from the band?

To answer this question, first of all, the film musical as a term will be introduced and considered with regards to the evolution in pop context. Afterwards, signifying fea- tures of film musicals will be defined. In this context, the terminologies escapism, nos- talgia, and participation are exposed. Then, the band ABBA and its factors of success will be regarded in terms of their motives to produce a film musical. What kind of signs of a relation between ABBA and the film musical “Mamma Mia!” can be examined? Finally, the film musical “Mamma Mia!” will be analyzed in relation to escapism, nos- talgia and participation. At the very end, a prospect of ABBA’s presence in the future will be given.1

2. The Film Musical

There are several films that consist of music most of the time. Moreover, the subject of a film can deal with music. Also a singer might take an important role in a film. An- yway, these are not defining criteria for “film musicals” (Jaszoltowski and Riethmüller 171). But how can we know the difference between a film with music and a film musi- cal as a genre? Film musicals as a genre can be defined in different ways. In the follow- ing chapter, the term film musical will be limited.

2.1 Definition of Film Musical

In general, film musicals have developed through the influence of popular music of Jazz, Swing, Rock’n’Roll and the integration of different dance moves. They can cover different themes without any thematic boundaries (Ott 53). The classical film musical can be characterized as comedy-centered stories which guarantee Happy-Ends most of the time (Trenka 147). The center of attraction is covered by a couple that struggles with different problems but finds its way back to love in the end, always followed by back- ground music (Ott 53).

The following analysis is based on three different ways, how a film musical is pro- duced. On the one hand, the production of the film can be based on the on-stage per- formance of the musical. On the other hand, the stories might be directly produced for the film. Moreover, film musicals can be the basis for the production of an on-stage performance, e.g. in the musical “The Producers” (1968 Mel Brooks), which was used for a Broadway production in 2000 (Jaszoltowski and Riethmüller 171-172).

There are different approaches to define film musicals. The President of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, Stevan Cohan, describes the film musical as a:

[…] genre with impossible numbers in some kind of dialectic relation with narrative, heightening, disrupting, revising, or multiplying the codes of cinematic realism ordinarily determining a film’s diegesis”. (2)

Cinematic realism is a concept for analyzing the relation of film to reality; anyway, realism as such is a productive illusion. There are two different modes of filmmaking. On the one hand, cinematic realism refers to the truthlikeness of films, which defines the believability between the characters and events. This kind of realism is mostly pre- sent in Hollywood cinema. On the other hand, cinematic realism can be realized through the camera’s mechanic reproduction of reality which often challenges the rules of Hol- lywood’s moviemaking (“Realism”).

The film’s diegesis describes the storytelling by a narrator who summarizes events and comments on the conversations, thoughts, etc., of the characters and the world in which these events occur (“Diegesis”).

In other words, Cohan outlines that the plot in film musicals is characterized by a dynamic interplay between the characters and events on the one hand and the songs on the other side (Trenka 148).

Apart from that, there are two different types of film musicals: The “integrated” and the “aggregated” form of self-reference. Integrated film musicals tend to realize natural crossovers between the narration and the songs (Trenka 150). Thus, it seems natural when a song follows a conversation. In contrast, the narration and songs in aggregated film musicals occur parallel but spontaneous, e.g. through improvisation when a song interrupts the current action and transforms the storyline (Cohan 2). The second kind of self-reference integrates the audience in a special way because the action is not foresee- able but seems to be spontaneous (Trenka 150).

Another approach to define film musicals is set up from the publisher of “American Film Musical”, Rick Altman. From Altman’s point of view, the film musical is a narra- tive genre, where a romantic couple has to solve a conflict and expresses its feelings through music and dance. There are three different subgenres: The “fairy tale musical”, the “show musical” and the “folk musical” (124).

The fairy tale musical refers to the perfect world of the upper class. The breakup and reunion of a couple restores the imagined kingdom. This kind of musical can be con- nected to the Hollywood-/ Happy-End musicals. It creates a Utopian world and lifts up and deals with the spectator’s dreams. In contrast, the show musical depicts a parallel- ism of success between love and the show business e.g. in the film “Step Up” (2006). The joy and art between dancing and singing plays an important role in this kind of mu- sicals. The last subgenre, the folk musical, relates to the cultural past as being glorified. Moreover, a romantic couple is integrated into the idealized society. They are able to simplify cultural discrepancies. Thus, the musical acts as the key to solve cultural prob- lems (Trenka 127).

2.2 Evolution of Film Musical in Pop-Context

The beginning of the film musical is dated in 1927 with the invention of the sound film in modern cinema. The first well-known music film is called “The Jazz Singer” (USA, 1927) (Niebling 40). Scenes of the American musical film were synchronically set to music and marked the beginning of film musicals (Trenka 148). Between 1930 and 1948, the so-called “Golden Age of Hollywood”, many improvements in sounds and technical developments were realized. The early film musicals were mostly adapta- tions of Broadway shows. From then on, film musicals are influenced by different gen- res which resulted in productions of Rock’n’Roll cinema, beat music movies and music documentary films (Niebling 40).

Till the 1960s the film musical was one of the most popular Hollywood genres and celebrated successful productions e.g. the West Side Story Film (1961). In the late 60s, the film musicals suffered a decline in popularity and artistry. There are different rea- sons but especially the change in film interests in pop culture caused the decline of tra- ditional film melodies. From then on, the musical film changed to a more simple struc- ture under influence of pop music (Ott 58). Disco music became more popular and therefore, several dance films were produced, e.g. Footloose (1984). Simultaneously, genres of punk and hip-hop gained influence and were present in music films as well. Moreover, another form of music mode got popular: the music video clip as a commer- cial tool of entertainment. Relating to the digital millennium, great effects on music formats were accomplished. The high-budget mode of fictional music films remained in the cinematic sector, whereas platforms such as YouTube offered self-produced concert films, clips, series and shows (Nielbing 42).

Music films shifted to a strong focus on orientalism, the “West” with exotic settings shown in Bollywood productions (Niebling 42). Nowadays, film musicals in Europe and North America does not have the huge presence as in Indian Bollywood produc- tions. Nevertheless, the awareness of how music works in films still leads to an im- provement of techniques for film music in other movie genres (Jaszoltowski and Rieth- müller 173).

3. Features of Film Musical

Film musicals as a genre address different kinds of feelings. In order to trigger those feelings, film musicals show different features. Those traits are partly responsible for the movie’s reception and success. Escapism, nostalgia, and participation are three of the most important phenomena, which are often realized in movies. They are especially part of film musicals to catch the viewers’ attention. In the following chapter, these three features are characterized.

3.1 Escapism

According to Natterer, “Escapism” is defined as a cognitive and emotional escape and avoidance of reality through the desire of entertainment (34-35).

There are different kinds of escapism. All three kinds of escapism result in an increase in media consumption. The “sociological escapism” is connected to the escape from reality. The person affected connects alienation to the individual life. People, who “suf- fer” from this kind of escapism, are unhappy with their workday and escape into the movie world. In contrast, the “social-psychological escapism” is based on personal characteristics. These persons are more sensitive to feelings like boredom, anger or waiting in general and increase their media consumption as a coping strategy to avoid those feelings. Another category of escapism encompasses motives that result in a breakout of routine, workday, and stress. This kind of escapism is called “resulted es- capism” and is one of the most problematic forms of escapism. The reason is that con- flicts are not solved because of avoiding the stress relief. People escape into the addic- tion of media consumption (Natterer 34-36).

In connection with escapism, another important term has to be introduced: The “immersion”. Immersion describes the possibility and sensation to lead oneself under the spell of media. This phenomenon leads to the feeling of being transported to another place (Brown, Clairns 1297).

Therefore, escapism and immersion together are important for the medial joy as shown in the following illustration (1).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Illustration (1) (Vorderer, Klimmt and Ritterfeld 393).

The user prerequisites (e.g. empathy and interest), the motives (e.g. escapism) and the media prerequisites (e.g. content) are important for the enjoyment (1). The higher these factors are, the higher is the enjoyment, which results in media choice. Enjoyment influences the excitation transfer which affects the increase of intensity of emotion. Moreover, enjoyment has effects on learning and the catharsis which is the process of regulating feelings and emotions (Natterer 36).

Thus, enjoyment is important for media choice and can be influenced by the desire to escape into the movie world. Therefore, escapism is a motive that is not necessarily connected to bad emotions as “a real escape” to something better and avoidance of reali- ty. It can help people to overthink their life and make a change. All in all, escapism and immersion as a concept allow the viewers to dive into a world apart from reality.

3.2 Nostalgia

The word “Nostalgia” is compromised of the Greek stem “nostos” which means to get back home and “algos” which means pain or grief. Thus, nostalgia can be connected to the desire to get back home. One of the first persons, who examined nostalgia, was the physicist, Hofer in 1688. He outlines, that nostalgia is a symptom for melancholia, grief, sentimentality, and depression (Natterer 9).

But nostalgia does not always mean a mental illness. 1979, Davis, considers nostal- gia as the desire for the past. That is the reason why nostalgia is nowadays connected to the bittersweet way of thinking because it makes people think of good old times (Nat- terer 10).

Davis differentiates between three different forms of nostalgia. The first one is the “Simple Nostalgia”. That is the “everything’s better in good old days”- way of thinking. The second one is the “Reflexive Nostalgia” . There, people critically ask themselves if things in the past are better or if they just highlight them because they are over. The last one is called the “Interpretative Nostalgia”. In this kind of nostalgia, the question is, why is the person nostalgic in the current situation (Natterer 10)?

With these kinds of definitions, it is possible to differentiate between homesickness and nostalgia. According to Natterer, homesickness is just the “longing for one’s home during a period of absence from it.” (11). In contrast, nostalgia is the “sentimental long- ing for the past” (Natterer 11).

Nowadays, emotion theoreticians mostly adapt to the fact, that nostalgia is a com- plex, wistfulness but positive emotion, which has essential functions for the self and consists of cognitive and affective components. Nostalgia is in contrast to the retro per- spective, a constant emotion over different lifetimes (Natterer 11).

Anyway, there are two different kinds of nostalgia – the historical and the personal one. The “Historical Nostalgia” defines memories of the past that are lying before the lifetime of the person. It is important to clarify that the historical nostalgia is just based on narration and assumption of how the life was before one’s lifetime. This kind of nos- talgia affects special epochs, e.g. the life and awareness of the life of the 80s. People, who feel this kind of nostalgia, try to escape from “The Now” to the past, where every- thing seems to be better. Young people often feel this kind of nostalgia (Natterer 12).

The other kind of nostalgia is the personal one. There, people directly feel the desire of the past because they have lived at that time. Often this desire is connected to mile- stones in the individual life, e.g. the first big love. The past is seen through “rose- colored glasses” and bad aspects of that time are cut out (Natterer 12).

3.3 Participation

Eder clarifies that the more human the actor’s need is, the more participation is pos- sible (599). Participation or involvement is the process, where the spectator perceives no difference between the imagined and the real world. The reason is that there is a high potential for identification process, where the spectator identifies with the actor. The person’s affectivity is polarized at the acting person (Natterer 32). One emphasizes with the acting person’s feelings and takes part in the action (Cohen-Séat, Fougeyrollas 28). The idea of participation lies in blurring the subjectivity and objectivity of the situation (28). This kind of involvement is called “socio-involvement” (Natterer 32).

Participation is connected to the feeling of being emotional touched. Participating people have the ability to react cognitively to special stimuli. A high level of participa- tion allows a systematic processing of the action. Therefore, the recipient is able to elaborate the content and connects the information to its own workday life (Natterer 32).

From a psychoanalytical point of view, participation does not always mean to identi- fy with another person. It can also mean that the spectator identifies with the changing positions in the film and sees the whole film as a public fantasy. In this case, participa- tion is connected to emotional memories. The person watching identifies with the film as such and participates in the whole acting as an escape from reality (Cohen-Séat, Fougeyrollas 28). This kind of participation is called “ego-involvement” (Natterer 32). It might occur, when the person watching sympathizes with the action because one knows the different situations and positions in the movie from the own life.

Both ways of participation, the socio-involvement, and the ego-involvement, are part of the strength of identity. The more involvement occurs, the more identification is possible (Krämer and Schwan and Unz and Suckfül 126).

The delineation of concepts like escapism, nostalgia, and participation is not always possible. All of them are working together in a movie’s reception and can cause one another. This blurring of concepts will be visible in chapter 6 where the different con- cepts are applied to the musical film “Mamma Mia!”.

For instance, nostalgia might cause a high personal relevance, self-reflection, and involvement (Natterer 73). Additionally, escapism might be triggered by nostalgia and the desire to participate in a Utopian world (ego-involvement).


1 In the following paper, the quotation at the end of each paragraph always refers to the whole paragraph until a new quote is given.

Excerpt out of 29 pages


Escapism and Nostalgia in the Film Musical
The Case of "Mamma Mia!"
Technical University of Braunschweig  (Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Nostalgia, Escapism, Film Musical, Film, Pop Music, Participation, ABBA, Audience, Artificiality
Quote paper
Cindy Herrmann (Author), 2017, Escapism and Nostalgia in the Film Musical, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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