The Eurovision Song Contest is a fever dream like no other. For the past few years, we’ve had performances featuring Germans confessing their love for Genghis Khan, a Romanian singer “summoning” demons onstage, a Russian song dedicated to grandmothers, and a Polish singer churning butter onstage – and those are only the bottom tier of weird. The COVID-cancelled contest is so absurd, in fact, that we now have a Will Ferrell movie about it – and unlike some of his most recent ventures, this one’s actually good.
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is the classic Will Ferrell comedy – much like Anchorman, Semi-Pro, and Talladega Nights, it manages to be both goofy and sincere all at once. This Netflix exclusive might as well be one of the most enjoyable music industry parodies since the Lonely Island mockumentary Popstar. Like some of Ferrell’s best work, it features a combination of campy ridiculousness and charming authenticity. Made in cooperation with Eurovision, the film does the rare work of both honoring and mocking its subject.
The titular Fire Saga are a duo of Icelandic singers – parking attendant Lars Erikssong (Ferrell) and primary school teacher Sigrit Eriksdottir (Rachel McAdams) – who dream of becoming international pop stars, but only play in the local pub in their tiny town of Husavik (which I just now learned is a real place). What works with the characterization of both Lars and Sigrit is that, while eccentric, they are invested with the genuine belief that what they are doing is special, and that doing what makes them happy is the most important thing in life. Coupled with their Ferrell-brand humor and surprisingly personal songwriting, they comprise some of the most genuine main characters that films of this genre have, and their friendship is integral to the film’s success. From a cinematic standpoint, the film is very nice to look at thanks to the creative vision of director David Dobkin – the wide shots and air shots of both Iceland and Scotland (where the 2020 contest takes place in the film, and would have in real life) are very beautiful and capture the places well, making me want to go to both places after the coronavirus dies down. The musical performances are similarly shot, and so absurd yet so lovable in their creative direction that there is no way to not enjoy them.
After Lars’ father, Erik (Pierce Brosnan), tells him to give up, and Fire Saga are picked at random to be in the top twelve of the Icelandic entry for the song contest, they end up being selected as Iceland’s Eurovision entry as a way to make sure they lose because of the financial burden it would provide the government. The plot is similar to that of The Producers – every time you expect Fire Saga to fail, and every time someone from the outside sets them up to fail, the duo keeps finding ways to succeed. Eurovision’s critical balance, that of absurdity and triumphant confidence, is at play here – and it’s just an additional way that it succeeds.
The film really works with its ensemble cast. Ferrell’s character is highly amusing but never as excessive as some of his others thanks to the supporting cast and the reserved nature of Iceland grounding him. Rachel McAdams, a great actress who is not-so-secretly one of the funniest people in Hollywood right now, is a secret weapon here. She is a brilliant comedic foil to Ferrell, as she was to Jason Bateman in Game Night, and her performance as the zany but sincere and upbeat Sigrit is a delight to root for. Dan Stevens, the only thing this film has close to an “antagonist,” is fantastic as Alexander Lemtov, a Russian crooner who pursues Sigrit to hide the fact that he is gay.
The biggest stars of this film, however, are the songs. Fire Saga’s “Volcano Man,” “Ja Ja Ding Dong,” and “Double Trouble,” Stevens’ “Lion of Love,” and the rest of the soundtrack all manage to embody that unique Eurovision mix of catchy hooks and wacky performances. One of the best ones, in my opinion, is a sequence that I can only describe as a modern Great Gatsby party infused with acid – where Ferrell, McAdams, Stevens, and real Eurovision winners sing a medley of songs including Cher’s “Believe” and ABBA’s “Waterloo.” One of these songs might as well be your “song of the sumar,” as they say in Icelandic.
As someone who grew up watching the Eurovision Song Contest, I probably would have enjoyed this film even if it was a full satire, mocking the stage antics and frosty geopolitics that play out each year. But Dobkin’s enchantment with the whole event took me by surprise, especially because he is traditionally a more cynical storyteller and comic. The song contest is a world with its own strange rules that can be bent for the purpose of comedy, something that the combination of Dobkin and Will Ferrell do well. Just like his takes on local news and NASCAR, Eurovision Song Contest is a great effort from Ferrell to tell a story that is both funny and empowering. This film encapsulates the chipper spirit of the song contest perfectly – it knows not only how to make fun, but also how to have fun, embracing its weirdness the whole time.