It looked as though 2020 was going to be the year without a Eurovision Song Contest, all due to COVID-19. However, thanks to the rather unlikely combination of Netflix and a Saturday Night Live alumnus, we’ve managed to get our hit of pan-global pop kitsch all the same, with more than a few laughs thrown in for good measure.
When it was first announced back in 2018 that a film was going to be made by the Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy star Will Ferrell about Eurovision, the news came as something of a surprise to say the least, as not only did it seem improbable that the contest could provide the basis of a movie, but that it was actually an American who would be spearheading the project.
The USA doesn’t participate in the Eurovision Song Contest, and there isn’t a great deal of public awareness of it over in the States, so what would an American know about one of our treasured institutions? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot: Will Ferrell’s wife is Swedish, and the couple travelled over to visit members of her family in 1999, at the same time that year’s contest was on.
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Having spent the evening watching the event, Ferrell ended up becoming fascinated by Eurovision, hooked by all of the flamboyance and eccentricity. In fact, he was turned into an ardent devotee of the competition, to such an extent that in 2014 he travelled to Copenhagen to watch the final. He also turned up in Lisbon for 2018’s contest, which is when it was apparently confirmed he had the go-ahead from organisers to make a Eurovision comedy.
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga tells the tale of Lars Erickssong (Will Ferrell) and Sigrit Ericksdóttir (Rachel McAdams), best friends who grew up together in a small Icelandic town, Húsavík. We see Lars as a young boy in 1974, struggling to get over the recent loss of his mother while failing to get any solace from his emotionally distant father, Erick (Pierce Brosnan).
At a gathering for that year’s Eurovision Song Contest, the sound of ABBA’s winning entry – ‘Waterloo’ – manages to spark something inside young Lars, which lifts him from his sorrow and inspires him to set himself on a path to not only entering but also winning the competition. Flash forward to the present day, the adult Lars and Sigrit have formed their own band, Fire Saga, with the aim of making that childhood dream come true.
When picking Iceland’s entry for the 2020 contest, a series of mishaps lead to Fire Saga ending up being the country’s representatives and flying to Edinburgh to take part in the semi-final. However, many obstacles lie in the way of Lars and Sigrit, including an unrequited love which may end up jeopardising their chances of making it through to the final itself, let alone winning the contest.
Ferrell isn’t one known for subtlety or underplaying things, so when it comes to tackling all of the overblown pomp and camp excess of Eurovision, he’s actually a perfect fit. You’d perhaps expect that with all of those trappings, it’d be easy pickings to parody the Eurovision Song Contest; however, it seems nothing could be further from the truth – the fact of Ferrell having the cooperation of the show’s organisers is an indication that he’s not going for the jugular.
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Not that he really needs to anyway, as it’s hard to send up a contest where the previous winners have included a Finnish heavy metal group, a bearded drag artist, and Cheryl Baker. Instead, Ferrell and co-writer Andrew Steele have chosen to strap in and just embrace the glorious madness of it all. It’s a love letter to everything Eurovision, even though the film isn’t really about the competition, which is just a backdrop to tell a tender love story, mixed with a coming of (middle) age tale.
Yes, there’s some necessary (and a little clunky) exposition to explain what Eurovision is for a US audience; however, it gives rise to some lovely culture clash moments, where Lars is vexed by the attempts of some American tourists to try and get a frame of reference for the contest by attempting to equate it to The Voice. For fans of the contest, we have cameos by previous winners in a ‘Song-A-Long’, as well as a lovely knowing joke about how no-one likes the UK, with fair comment about our recent scoring history.
A movie is as strong as its cast, and Ferrell’s standard OTT level of performance is curiously more restrained here than you might expect (although it could just be that it appears much smaller when put next to all the wonderful absurdity of Eurovision). In McAdams, we have a more than capable co-lead, with not only some great comic chops, but also an immense innocence and likeability, which easily makes her the standout star of the piece.
Dan Stevens (of Downton Abbey and, latterly, the Marvel Comics TV adaptation by Fox of Legion) serves us with a suitably louche turn playing Alexander Lemtov, a sexually ambiguous Russian singer who’s tipped as favourite. The brother and sister duo of Jamie and Natasia Demetriou (best known for Stath Lets Flats and – in the latter’s case – the glorious What We Do In The Shadows) are both welcome additions to the lineup, with Natasia delivering a turn which will please fans of her sitcom vampire, Nadja.
Having Pierce Brosnan here might seem an unconventional selection, but you can’t help but wonder if this is a knowing nod to his oft-derided singing in Mamma Mia! (and ABBA also being a handy touchstone for Americans, both through that musical, and their archival appearance at the start of the film, giving the Yanks an inroad into the contest which they might otherwise lack). A most unexpected treat is the appearance of Graham Norton in the role of commentator, giving it his sardonic best as per.
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Yes, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga is a very funny film, but the burgeoning romance between Lars and Sigrit also gives it genuine warmth and heart. Perhaps the most surprising development of all is Ferrell and Steele taking the opportunity to pass comment upon the genuine plight of LGBTQ+ people in Chechnya and Russia, which is an extra level of depth provided by such a left-field choice for a Ferrell comedy.
Netflix have definitely picked a winner here with this latest addition to their growing line of original content. It seems rather apt that all the craziness of Eurovision should have caught Netflix in a wild conspiracy theory which involved 2020’s actual Icelandic entry, the ridiculously catchy ‘Think About Things’ by Daði og Gagnamagnið. Sometimes, truth can be stranger than fiction, and when that happens to be a Will Ferrell vehicle, it’s definitely no mean feat.
A laugh-out-loud, joyous, life-affirming flick, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga is easily well worth douze points on anyone’s scorecard.