We are in the age of musical biopics. Last year spawned three surprise hits alone in Netflix’s The Dirt, detailing the rise and fall of legendary glam band, Motley Crue. Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman each kept the torch lit, bringing in millions at the box office and introducing a whole new generation to the marvels of Queen and Elton John.
It seems surprising, then, that it took this long for a Eurovision tie-in to come to our silver screens. Okay, sure, it’s not a documentary. Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, bewilderingly, tells the tale of fictional Icelandic Euro entry, Fire Saga, featuring the likes of Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams, Pierce Brosnan and Demi Lovato. It’s also packed with special appearances from previous Song Contest entries and winners, delighting veterans of the tackiest competition on Earth. Still, we all love it, eh?
For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of the Eurovision Song Contest (and I do stress ‘concept’ here; it’s still so bizarre a tradition the world over, steeped in its own rituals and devout followers), I am, mostly, impressed. The contest is a multi-national singing competition in which various countries across Europe (and, more recently, further afield) try to win by putting forward their own ‘act’ (the visual performance is as important as the song itself. Most of the time, more so) and battling it out on the big night. Often somewhere around the end of May. The winner then hosts the contest the following year.
When I was younger, Eurovision was definitely not something every household enjoyed. My dad loved it for… some reason (much like Atlantis or spontaneous human combustion, the jury’s out on that one) so we watched it every year. Mentioning it to someone at school was a bit like having the audacity to preach freedom in 1940s Germany. You just didn’t do it. Yet now, it seems everyone I meet partakes in the perennial ritual of Eurovision; having parties, get-togethers, or at the very least a bottle of wine (alcohol is essential for prime Eurovision watching; it’s needed to get through the woeful voting).
And on the outside, Eurovision shouldn’t be all that odd. But with dozens of different cultures clashing together in a battle of national identity, we’ve grown crazy with embodying each and every one; soaking up entire histories in bite-sized chunks of trashy Europop.
But that’s enough about the Contest itself. In June of this year, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic – and resulting lockdown – Netflix finally unveiled their latest offering. Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. Tried-and-tested (to mixed results) comedy star, Will Ferrell, plays Lars Erickssong, one half of the fictitious Icelandic electro-pop group, Fire Saga, with Sigrit Ericksdottir (played by Rachel McAdams). Together the pair unexpectedly become the representatives for their country in the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest. It’s two hours long and, surprisingly, it fills out the runtime fairly easily.
In many ways, …The Story of Fire Saga is a perfect reflection of the real-life Eurovision Song Contest itself. It’s loud, flamboyant, cringey at (multiple) points, head-scratch worthy, and by the end you’re begging for it all to just sod off. The music is (largely) awful, the narrations by Graham Norton remain its only redeemable feature, and some of the acts leave you quite honestly wishing the death penalty was legal in whatever country is hosting that year.
And yet, somehow, as the curtain falls, you’re weirdly proud of what you’ve just bore witness to. It’s not perfect. Far from it. But it’s bizarre, and loved, and in some way, yours.
…Fire Saga is, by and large, not an artistic masterpiece (spoiler alert). But the film isn’t bad. It least knows its place on the food chain, proving self-aware – with a surprising 15 certificate that adds a refreshing dash of the extreme and zany to an already wacky concept. It allows the film to lose itself in the nebulous, often bringing with it the film’s best moments. Icelandic elves murdering people, gratuitous mentions of the word ‘penis’, technical incest, trademark trashy Europop and Demi Lovato’s flaming dismembered arm. The film is almost checkpointed by one-upping itself in levels of immaturity and far-fetchedness. Many parts of the movie felt so bad that they were somewhat laughable. But, especially as …Fire Saga progressed, it became really rather decent in an unironic way. Again, much like Eurovision itself. You have little hopes at the beginning as we meet our two protagonists, yet as our dynamic duo give us ‘Volcano Man’, a surprisingly alright tune, the feeling of potential hope springs to life.
I will say the introductory characterisation is a bit on the nose, and many aspects of the plot felt rushed or just plain cliché, but I can’t really say I didn’t expect as much from this type of film. What I didn’t expect, however, was the level of self-awareness that – for the most part – worked in its favour. From Graham Norton’s hysterical narrations to every song sticking to that unmistakable Euro-rhythm, I was overcome with British nods of silent approval at my television screen. Eurovision knows what it is. Will Ferrell (co-writer and producer of the movie) knows what it is. And it pays off for the most part. But that’s not to say there aren’t a few flaws.
There are definitely moments of cringe, or occasional droughts of stretched-out comedy that don’t really pay off or go anywhere. A few of the dialogue interactions between Lars and Sigrit feel forced (their whole ‘I’m checking you out!’ catchprase springs to mind) but these are relatively few and far between. The antagonist of cold and calculated businessman, Victor Karlosson is a minor character for half the movie, before coming out of the woodwork and trying to kill Will Ferrell like some woodlouse on crystal meth. It jumps out of seemingly nowhere. But his ultimate demise does remain one of the best moments of the entire saga for me. The schoolboy humour of penis size hits and misses in equal measure, and there’s a healthy dosage of anti-Americanism for… some reason (then again, American is, rather unsurprisingly, not part of Europe so it’s all good).
I noted others shared an almost visceral reaction to Ferrell’s character, citing him as boasting no good qualities. And it’s hard to disagree. Lars certainly does nothing but hinder the hopes and dreams of eventual soulmate Sigrit – somewhat rising like a phoenix at the film’s climax. Whilst I didn’t outright hate Lars, however, I remained fairly neutral to him. Which is perhaps a sign that his character wasn’t well implemented. There’s comic relief, and being foolish for the good of comedy, but get the balance wrong and you end up with, well, just an idiot. And after a while, dick jokes do little to bring that idiot much-needed fleshing.
But on the whole, the film exhibited a generally adequate understanding of what makes a good film. There were bad guys – one of which even toed the line between antihero and villain, though whether this was deliberate or just poor character writing, who knows? – good guys, bits of brilliant cinematography, and plenty of humour to keep the train going when it began to slow down. It was pleasantly surprising.
By the end of …Fire Saga, I expected to be soaked through with sweat like a second-hand cringe induced Goebbels at a trial, but instead I found himself smiling and looking back on the film as a fond, faithful homage to one of Britain’s, nay, Europe’s, most adored treasures. We missed Eurovision this year (a sort of replacement was broadcast but paled in comparison to the lights and pleather glamour of the real thing). Though dull at times, repetitive, and tiring (when the voting starts, and you get the feeling that you very strongly want to do a Patrick Bateman on that energetic dickhead who gives their political ally ‘douzes-points!’), it’s almost a part of our own culture. Whether this film will stand up to repeated viewing, or be acknowledged by future incarnations of the contest, well, only time can tell.
But there’s no doubt over a Eurovision-shaped hole in our hearts this year. And though The Story of Fire Saga doesn’t quite fill it, it does, perhaps, quench that need with a well-crafted substitute.