It’s been a long lockdown. Domestic sport and music events ground to a halt early on, and on March 17, UEFA announced its 2020 European Football Championships would now be played in 2021. But much worse for some, the following day Eurovision 2020 was cancelled too.
While football has since restarted (albeit in an eerie, spectatorless fashion), for Eurovision fans there’s nothing but a discoball-shaped hole and a wait of a whole year to see who can dethrone the Netherlands in the world’s premier Europop battle of the bands.
But fear not Eurovision fans, for Netflix – pretty much an essential service in an age of mandatory isolation – is here to fill the spangled void. Its new film, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, is now streaming and is a welcome addition to the Hollywood musical genre (though if anything, it’s not actually musical enough).
Starring genuine Eurovision fanatic Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as fictional Icelandic entry Fire Saga, the film follows Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Ericksdottir as they seek to rise from frustrated but dreadful pub duo to unlikely pop sensations.
For those familiar with Ferrell’s work, you might be expecting (as I did) something like his German accent from The Producers, combined with the wardrobe glamour of Blades of Glory and the arch silliness of Zoolander. The film ticks all of these boxes, but eschews Scandi-pop stereotypes in favour of, well, different Nordic stereotypes.
Ferrell had a head start on his Nordic research for the film thanks to his Swedish wife, but he took things very seriously by joining the Swedish delegation at Eurovision in 2018. Leaning heavily on generic comedy Nordic accents, Lars and Sigrit are immediately likeable and the audience is rooting for the pair from the outset.
Inspired by Swedish group Abba’s legendary 1974 winning entry Waterloo, Lars and Sigrit come from a small fishing town, pray to magic elves and dream of stardom. Visions of autotuned pop sung atop snowy mountains in Viking cloaks and metallic lipstick, emanate from rehearsals in Lars’s bedroom. Father Ted fans might be reminded of the classic A Song for Europe episode and the hapless priests’ My Lovely Horse entry, but then that’s unavoidable from an underdog comedy about Eurovision.
The Father Ted parallels deepen (even before the inevitable cameo of BBC Eurovision host Graham Norton, who once played a Riverdancing priest in the sitcom) as Fire Saga are given their big break – spoiler alert – in tragic circumstances.
Suddenly Icelandic favourite, pop starlet Katiana (played by US pop starlet Demi Lovato) is out of the picture. So, despite a disastrous qualifying round, Fire Saga become the default Iceland entry for Eurovision, much to the country’s dismay.
With the odds stacked against them, Fire Saga travel to host city Edinburgh (which of course means that the UK must have won the contest the previous year!) to navigate backstage politics and the destructive forces of their own camp, to affirm their endearingly awkward (and definitely not incestuous, as the protagonists repeatedly assert) romance.
But Fire Saga are up against more polished rivals that include suave Russian star Alexander Lemtov (played by Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens). Can they win the hearts of Eurovision fans and Lars’s disapproving father (Pierce Brosnan)?
As their musical journey progresses, the audience is treated to Cher-Abba medleys, original music (some ably sung by Ferrell himself), a nod to 2006 heavy-metal Finnish winners Lordi in the form of Belarusian entry Moon Fang, and enough real-world references to keep the diehards happy (“She is good, but everyone hates UK so zero points!”).
It’s hard to imagine how the film might come across to those unfamiliar with Eurovision culture, but any US audience with a fondness for Will Ferrell’s particular brand of silliness will find much to enjoy.
The contest provides fertile soil for the settling of political scores, which is half the fun – the other half being the carnival of camp kitsch that ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. And although the film doesn’t hide from the political point-scoring, it’s best understood by experiencing the contest for yourself. As The Guardian live-blogged in 2019: “No jury points for the UK from Ireland, but we got five from Belarus. To be fair, we’re not screwing Belarus over border issues.”
According to the film’s IMDB page, The Story of Fire Saga was originally supposed to coincide with the real 2020 contest in Rotterdam in May, but who could have possibly predicted the circumstances of its postponement?
Instead we have a fun film packed with enough glamour, melodrama, sequins, fireworks and knowing cliché to give Eurovision fans something to tide them over till next year. Essentially a two-hour advert for the contest, it barely qualifies as a spoof, but is enjoyable nonetheless. Dix points? Maybe not, but it’s a long way from nul.