A common accusation on film discussion boards such as the IMDb is that the film Mamma Mia! is a copy of the 2007 film Across The Universe, which was built around the songs of The Beatles – as if the concept of making a musical from existing songs was unique to that film.
Of course this is not true, as the Mamma Mia! stage musical premiered in 1999, and had been in development for several years before that. But the idea of using an existing catalogue of songs goes back much, much further.
In the 1970s, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band(also using the songs of The Beatles, but not limited to the songs on the album of the same name) played on Broadway and was an infamous movie starring the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton. In 1967 the movie Thoroughly Modern Millie made use of songs from the 1920s, along with a couple of original songs.
But the idea of a full musical using one writer’s existing catalogue can probably be traced back to the 1954 movie There’s No Business Like Show Business, starring Ethel Merman, Donald O’Connor and Marilyn Monroe and featuring songs by Irving Berlin.
Mamma Mia! kept its ABBA references to a minimum. Aside from a poster advertising “Fernando’s night club” and the cameos by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, there were nothing to do with ABBA aside from the songs.
Across The Universe on the other hand was filled with references to The Beatles – most major characters were named for characters in songs, so that the songs featuring those names would feature at some point in the narrative – Jude, Prudence, Sadie, Jojo, etc. Scenes appeared to take place simply to stage a song, for example ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!’ when the cast stumble across a circus in the middle of nowhere. For the most part the songs sounded nothing like the original Beatles’ recordings, unlike Mamma Mia! which faithfully replicated the ABBA arrangements.
There were other subtle in-jokes aimed at Beatle fans, such as a character cutting a granny smith apple in half, a reference to The Beatles’ Apple Records logo and label.
To me, despite having a more “serious” story than Mamma Mia!(youth rebellion in the 1960s), the whole thing was like one of those exercises in threading songs and references into a story that we all did when we were teenagers – “Fernando and Chiquitita were going on a holiday to Happy Hawaii. Their friend Alice said it was fun. Elaine asked Cassandra “take a chance on me and tell me the name of the game“. People need love on arrival in Waterloo.” That sort of thing.