Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga does not have much working in its favor – one of the worst titles in recent memory, bizarre marketing art, over-the-top costumes, unfamiliar accents, and it centers around a music contest that is relatively unknown in the US. If local cinemas were open, this may be a tough sell, but like the film’s titular band, Fire Saga, the film may have caught a break. Streaming exclusively on Netflix, where viewers are more forgiving and willing to give the unique content a shot, the oddball music film may just find its audience. An audience that surprisingly includes me.
The one aspect of the film that piqued my interest, the casting of Rachel McAdams. She has been on a roll lately with her work in Disobedience and Game Night, some of my favorite performances of their respective years. Why would she be involved with such an unusual film? I had to know. Not only did I find it a delightful watch, but it also hooked me in with its charm, wit, catchy music, and sincerity. I never thought I would say this, but Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is the movie I needed right now.
Eurovision Song Contest is an ultra-popular annual international song competition that many Europeans are passionate about. Don’t be embarrassed if you had never heard of it, most Americans had not until this film, including me. It is kind of the World Cup of song contests with each country submitting one artist to compete against all other participating countries’ artists. The acts then perform live on television across Europe and through a complex point system eventually one winner is chosen. Past winners include ABBA and Celine Dion.
In “Eurovision,” Lars Erickssong, (Will Ferrell) a 50-year-old Icelandic who lives in his dad’s (Pierce Brosnan) basement has dreamt of competing in the contest since he was a boy. Along with Sigrit Ericksdotter (McAdams), the pair of misfits make up the band Fire Saga. They truly believe in themselves and that their music will eventually lead them to international success in the Eurovision Song Contest. A belief not shared by many (or anyone else), including Lars’ father. Their music career has been limited to singing at their local pub to a less than captivated audience that really only wants to hear them perform their novelty song, Jaja Ding Dong, for the umpteenth time.
After a surprising twist of fate, Fire Saga is thrust into the spotlight, becoming the official act to represent Iceland at the Eurovision Grand Final. From here we watch the pair of oddballs give everything they have got to win the competition – from air acrobatics to a giant hamster wheel. While much of what happens in regards to the contest is a telegraphed classic underdog story we have seen before, it works. Even with its predictable elements enough surprises are injected along the way add some fresh to the cliché, keeping vested in their attempt at musical glory.
Director David Dobkin produces an array of quirky and extravagant “live” musical performances. Inspired by actual Eurovision contestants, the oft-outrageous acts range from awkward to comical to quite entertaining. Not being familiar with Eurovision, I am probably not the best judge, but this satire seems to be leaning more toward homage rather than a mockery of the contest. True fans may feel differently. Seeing that some of the scenes were actually shot in front of the Eurovision crowd, creating an authentic feel of the international hit, my guess is that was the intention.
Of course, when it comes to singing acts, Fire Saga is the main draw here, but the spotlight is nearly stolen by Dan Stevens‘ delightful turn as Russian Alexander Lemtov – a smooth-talking, perfectly coifed “sex player” (as referred to by Lars) who may not have quite figured out his sexuality yet. He tears up the stage and also delivers some of the film’s best laughs. The song performances are meticulously staged and choreographed preventing them from ever feeling like a chore to watch.
The romantic subplot revolving around the relationship, or lack thereof, between Sigrit and Lars (McAdams and Ferrell) breathes much of the tenderness into the story. The pair, who are “probably not” brother and sister, are on two different wavelengths. Sigrit adores Lars, which you can see through her longing eyes and willingness to go along with his misguided efforts. All the while he remains too focused on the music to embrace her love and even pushes her away out of fear that romance will destroy the band as it did with other groups such as Fleetwood Mac and Simon and Garfunkel. But she still has his back. When Sigrit finds Lars stuffing his pants before going on stage to bring attention to his groin area. Not only does she not judge him, she actually joins in hoisting up her pants and offering to do a “classic camel.” That’s love. You can’t help but root the pair who are so committed to their art and each other.
Individually Ferrell and McAdams hit the right level of absurdity which hovers below the excessiveness that often distorts comedies into displays of over-the-top attention-seeking. Writers Andrew Steele and Ferrell harness in most of their biggest laughs by keeping the humor more low key. The characters’ awkward phrasing of the English language, obliviousness, and stereotypical Scandinavian straightforwardness, combined with their (inconsistent at best) accents all add to the fun. It injects humor into every conversation, working particularly well when the topic shifts to sex. Their more literal, childlike approach to the subject turns something that could be sensual or seductive into odd, almost technical, and often hysterical.
Ferrell treads on familiar ground here and is a joy to watch because of it. Leaning heavily on his trademark always-a-step-behind, dry delivery. He does give his all though providing some great physical humor and even singing his own songs. McAdams plays Sigrit as sweet but naive in the nicest of ways (she still believes in elves). While she does put her comedic chops on display here, her best work is often playing the comedic foil to the less predictable, mishap-prone Lars. There is a natural chemistry between. My guess is there was plenty of improvisation on set. If so, hopefully, one day Netflix will release the outtakes.
There is also an odd sing-along crowbarred in about halfway through the film that consists of a medley of “Believe,” “Ray of Sunshine,” and “I Gotta Feeling” performed the cast and cameos that I am guessing are past Eurovision participants. Even without recognizing these cameos, I enjoyed it as well as many of the musical acts. There are also some “cameos” from pop-star Demi Levoto and BBC One talk show host, Graham Norton that add to the mix with some hints of darker humor.
Where other movies would use this as an opportunity to make a mockery of the contest and the people in it, “Eurovision” remains more respectful. There are so multiple gorgeous shots of the picturesque towns, architecture, and mountains it at times plays like a European travelogue. The songs here are handled with care. Even though they definitely lean toward goofy, they find the right balance of self-awareness to rise above being just a throw-away joke, providing catchy music that is at times is sublime. Personally, I am quite fond of the ABBA-esque “Double Trouble,” “Husavik,” “Jaja Ding Dong…” okay I like them all.
The formulaic storyline, clunky title, and outrageous costumes may push away some potential viewers. Those who look past them Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga will be pleased to find a film that delivers plenty of laughs and a surprising amount of heart under all the ridiculousness. During these stressful times, there is something about the film’s hopeful charm and the entertaining songs that makes it the perfect thing to block out the noise of the world.
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is streaming exclusively on Netflix.