Let the Eurovision Song Contest begin! The global health crisis might have put a stop to those immortal words being enthusiastically declared this year, with the 65th Eurovision Song Contest postponed until 2021, but fans and newcomers alike will nevertheless get to experience a version of the musical campfest vicariously through this genuinely feel-good comedy about an unlikely Icelandic pop duo’s bid for Eurovision glory. For those unfamiliar with the bizarre phenomenon that is Eurovision, an annual songwriting competition established post-Second World War to foster harmony between nations, it can be hard to grasp the appeal; endless performances, outlandish costumes, gimmicky choreography and clichéd lyrics, often sung in English through a heavy accent. Although doesn’t that list make it sound pretty darn appealing?
Growing up in the UK during the 80s, I have fond memories of staying up late to witness the marathon telecast with my Italian grandmother, who was proud to have a rare reason to cheer on her native nation in anything outside of football. Even for her though, like most of the UK, much of the fun of watching the show was down to the cutting observations, filtered through a genuine affection for the show, of the late legendary broadcaster Terry Wogan. As the BBC’s Eurovision commentator for nearly four decades, firstly on radio back in 1971, then on television from 1980 until 2008, his acerbic wit punctured the Euro-cheesiness of it all. It’s reassuring then to find fellow witty Irishman Graham Norton, who succeeded Wogan and continued in the same tradition, playing himself in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga. Though Norton’s commentary is a little less biting and funny than it generally is in real life.
Every country that takes part in the event has their unique perspective on the occasion. For the UK it’s an excuse to put up some flag bunting and throw a boozy party, while for some smaller nations who are generally ignored by the world’s media, it’s a source of pride to be in the spotlight for once. With this global Netflix release, aimed at subscribers in over 190 countries, the tone of Will Ferrell and Andrew Steele’s screenplay is one that covers all bases, and is likely to appeal to those who cherish Eurovision, as much as as those who lovingly deride it, while serving as an intriguing introduction for anyone coming to the movie knowing little or anything about it.
The action opens in the picturesque fishing village of Húsavík, Iceland, where Lars (Will Ferrell) first became obsessed with winning Eurovision for his country while watching Abba perform on the telecast in April 1974, along with his childhood friend Sigrit (Rachel McAdams). Cut to present day and Lars and Sigrit’s band, Fire Saga, miraculously qualify to represent Iceland at the Eurovision final in Edinburgh with their catchy song Double Trouble, following a tragic event that renders all of the other contenders unable to compete. That includes the nation’s best ever hope at winning the contest, Katiana (a captivating Demi Lovato). One of the most far-fetched elements of the entire movie, murderous elves notwithstanding, is that the final takes place in Edinburgh, given that the host nation has to have won the previous year’s contest. In reality the UK has pretty much hovered around the bottom of the scoreboard for over two decades.
As reliably endearing, funny and engaging as Will Ferrell is as Lars, it’s hard to ever forget you’re watching Will Ferrell and there’s a sketch show quality to the performance which never allows us to deeply invest in the character’s journey. McAdams brings a sweet vulnerability to Sigrit, a woman who has dedicated her life to Fire Saga, but having been dominated artistically by Lars hasn’t yet channeled any real passion into her singing. While she yearns to start a family with Lars, he’s so focused on winning Eurovision that he doesn’t have time for any romantic distractions. There are also rumours afoot that the two might be siblings, given that Lars’ handsome but unsupportive father Erick (Pierce Brosnan) has slept with most of the women in the village. The odd couple’s adorable naiveté as they venture outside Húsavík adds a fun fish-out-of-water element to the proceedings. Another source of humour is Fire Saga’s frequent stage malfunctions that easily rival Derek getting stuck in that alien pod in Spinal Tap, or even Madonna’s real life dramatic cape fail fall at the Brits. At one point a giant hamster wheel Lars is running in (inspired by a prop used in a 2014 Eurovision performance by the Ukrainian contestant Mariya Yaremchuk) spins out of control and rolls off stage. A simple gag that had me in fits of laugher, and fortunately there are enough of these moments sprinkled throughout the film to keep it entertaining.
There’s a whimsical charm to the Icelandic set scenes, with fishermen huddled around their drinks in the cosy village bar, while the epic scale of the landscape is captured by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Danny Cohen. Once in Edinburgh, again beautifully lensed by Cohen, the pair meet wealthy Russian and fellow Eurovision contestant, Alexander Lemtov (a well cast Dan Stevens, who’s clearly having a lot of fun in the role). Lemtov is an 80s George Michael lookalike with a severe bronzer addiction and a troupe of shirtless male backing dancers usually in tow. After a sleepless night with Sigrit, we learn that the only bedroom action was Lemtov braiding her hair. All of which leads to Sigrit’s burning question, essentially the one posed in that Legally Blonde the Musical number There! Right There!, is he ‘gay or European?” To which, when he’s directly asked, Lemtov replies that there aren’t any gays in Russia. It’s a nice dig at Putin’s 2013 federal law prohibiting “gay propaganda”, but unfortunately it’s immediately undercut by Sigrit apparently conflating sexual orientation and gender identity. When Alexander says he’s not gay, Sigrit continues to probe: ‘Gender fluid? Non-binary?’ with Lemtov asserting that he uses ‘he/him pronouns’. Aside from anything else it’s a joke that falls flat and, however unintentionally, risks offending Eurovision’s strong LGBTQ+ fan base who will no doubt be drawn to the film.
On a more positive note, in a standout, gloriously over-the-top, and indeed the most quintessentially Eurovision sequence of the movie, house guests at Alexander’s lavish party burst into “song-a-long” and perform a medley of upbeat pop hits from the likes of Cher, the Black Eyed Peas and Madonna, as well as Abba’s Eurovision winner Waterloo. Past winning performers including Conchita Wurst, Jamala, Loreen and Netta all make cameos, lighting up the screen as they arrive. The energy, excess and fun of it all immediately cranks the movie up a few notches to eleven and beyond. In fact it’s a pity that the film didn’t have more scenes like this, capitalising on some of Eurovision’s iconic musical moments and stars.
The movie’s twelve original songs manage to distill that curious Eurovision combination of outlandishness and earnestness, with lyrics that sound like they were composed by Google translate, yet have an instant earworm quality to them. They are songs that feed the comedy, but could also conceivably do pretty well in the competition. Unsurprisingly there was some serious songwriting talent behind them. Fire Saga’s Double Trouble was from the pen of Savan Kotecha, who has written hits for the likes of Ariana Grande, The Weeknd, and Usher, while Katiana’s song, In The Mirror, is by Jörgen Elofsson, who’s written monster hits for Britney and Kelly Clarkson. There’s also some of Reykjavík’s own Sigur Rós on the soundtrack to balance out the kitschy numbers like Lemtov’s anthem Lion of Love.
Director David Dobkin proves a good fit, with his comedy and music credentials combing to serve him well. Having directed music videos for the likes of 2Pac, Maroon 5 and Elton John, he brings a grand scale and sense of authenticity to the musical performances, along with all the pyrotechnics and lighting extravaganzas one has come to expect form Eurovison. While Maleficent costumer designer Anna B. Sheppard also honours the legacy of Eurovision with some suitably striking creations and frequent outfit changes. Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga succeeds in capturing the essence of what so many enjoy about Eurovision, while potentially opening the door for a new movie franchise.
By James Kleinmann
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga premieres globally on Netflix on June 26th 2020.