Movie Review: Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

Instead of politics, today I want to recommend Netflix’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, a sweet, funny, melodious movie.

I was introduced to the Eurovision Song Contest in 1982 when I was an exchange student in England. All of my friends were British and none was too cool to watch the Eurovision Song Contest. It was a big deal.

My friends knew who had won in past years and they had very strong national feelings about the British contestants. The fact that Bucks Fizz, a British group, had won in 1981 was a point of pride. They were even proud that Ireland’s Johnny Logan had won in 1980. (I can only imagine how proud they were when he won again in 1987, making him the only contestant to win twice.) Many of my friends were offended when 1982’s winner was a soppy German peace song, sung by a 17-year-old schoolgirl, instead of a snappy British pop song or ballad.

Those are my bona fides: I know about Eurovision. Also, as an ABBA fan, I know what every ABBA fan has always known, which is that the famed Swedish group won the contest in 1974. Knowing that and seeing the Eurovision contest for the first time in 1982, however, were two different things.

Remember that, back in the day, without the internet, one could hear about the Eurovision contest in America but still have no idea what it was. Nowadays, you can watch it on the internet and watch videos of performing groups.

One of my favorite things (yes, I am a nerd) is to watch compilations of winning groups or of the worst performances. I mention this because, if you’re going to watch the movie I’m about to review, you too need to watch the compilation of winning groups, as well as the worst performances. Only then will you fully appreciate Will Ferrell’s funny, sweet, silly homage to the Eurovision contest, a movie descriptively titled Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, now showing on Netflix.

Here is the best Eurovision compilation video, which takes us from the competition’s small beginnings, with just 10 nations singing songs in their home country’s language, to today’s mega-festival, with the winning songs almost all in English. In addition to the language shift, you can also enjoy watching Western popular culture change over the last sixty-three years:

And here are a couple of compilations of the really horrible things that can happen on the Eurovision stage:

Okay, you’ve now got the background you will need to enjoy the movie. Oh, one more thing: I can’t stand Will Ferrell, who’s always creeped me out.  But I still loved this movie.

The movie begins in 1974 in the tiny fishing village of Húsavík, Iceland, at the post-funeral wake for the mother of little Lars Erickssong (whom Will Ferrell plays as an adult). The mourning child sees ABBA performing at Eurovision and, to the amusement and disbelief of the gathered adults, including his scoffing parent (Pierce Brosnan), announces that he will one day win at Eurovision. Sigrit Ericksdottir (played as an adult by Rachel McAdams), who’s never before spoken, chimes in to agree with his vision.

Fast forward to the present day and Lars and Sigrit are still in Húsavík, with Lars working as a parking attendant and Sigirt as a school teacher, and both are still writing Eurovision-esque songs and dreaming of the contest. Sadly, while they’re creating soaring melodies, the locals just want to hear “Ja Ja Ding Dong,” which is a perfect, mildly-obscene takeoff on the perky folk songs that used to feature in the 1950s at Eurovision.

I don’t want to give away the (extremely silly) plot, so I’ll say only that, for a most unexpected reason, Lars and Sigrit who, together, sing as “Fire Saga,” make it to the Eurovision contest in Edinburgh.

The plot, incidentally, is the weakest part of the movie. What makes the movie wonderful are the characters and the music. Sigrit is sweet, innocent (she believes in elves), a fabulous singer, and crazily in love with Lars. That last is her weakness because Farrell’s Lars is an unbelievable jerk, but he’s a jerk with a big dream.

When the duo arrives in Edinburgh, they meet the Russian Alexander Lemtov, who is the reigning star of the Eurovision contest. Dan Stevens (whom many remember from Downton Abbey) plays Lemtov as a dashing, romantic, repressed character who sings with a lusty baritone (voiced by Erik Erik Mjönes). His big song is “Lion of Love,” and it’s wonderfully awful. The inspiration came from this 2013 Romanian entry:

The movie is rich in music, with a lot of past Eurovision competitors (including many winners) joining in an impressive “Sing-A-Long.” You’ll enjoy the music even if you’ve never seen Eurovision songs before (although I think you’ll enjoy them more if you watch the above videos). You’ll certainly recognize which songs are genuinely good and you’ll get a good laugh out of the songs that are perfect spoofs.

McAdams is, to my mind, the movie’s standout. She never overplays her ingenue quality because, through it all, she has an underlying strength that’s tied to her fundamental goodness. That’s a delicate characterization to show in a movie that’s often a broad farce, with some laugh-out-loud slapstick scenes, but McAdams does it. She also does a great job of lip-synching to Molly Sandén’s soaringly beautiful voice.

Ferrell is Ferrell. Meh, but the movie reflects his vision and he does his own singing, which is pretty good. (I just thought there ought to have been more cowbell.)

Warning: Farrell mouths some anti-American statements. Frankly, I couldn’t figure out whether Ferrell meant it or whether he was making the point that awful, selfish people are the types who don’t appreciate America. Since I couldn’t figure it out, I decided not to let it bother me because the movie is otherwise such a delight.


Wolf Howling comment:  Having seen the movie as well, let me add a few comments.

One, this is Will Farrel’s tour de force.  It is both a deftly-told love story (and as Hollywood writer Robert Avrech likes to say, all good stories are love stories) and a redemption story of the ilk Ms. Bookworm so loves, all amidst chaos, farce, and a seemingly endless string of cringe-worthy moments.

Literally all of the professional reviews of the movie that I have read emphasize how perfectly Farrell captured the spirit of the Eurovision contest and the type of acts that are annually entered.  I can’t speak to that, although I can say that, if you like music in the styles of Abba and Enya along with a dose of Black Sabbath, you will appreciate the music in this movie.  For instance, “The Lion of Love” (see the “It’s My Life” video that Ms. BWR posted, above) is a wonderfully rendered song.  The vocal is powerful.  But the lyrics are over-the-top comic and the choreography is over-the-top gay without transgressing a line to becoming vulgar.  The end result is comedic genius:

So much of Farrell’s shtick over the years has been to use cringe-worthy moments as a substitute for humor.  In this movie, his humor (for Farrell is the writer) actually over-shadows each of the cringe-worthy moments.  Add to that a very healthy dose of slap-stick and you’ve got one of Hollywood’s best movies in years.

Two final points.  I disagree with Ms. BWR as to Farrell’s performance and his anti-Americanism.  One, Farrell does a superb job as a dreamer / jerk  (his typical character) but in the end, he redeems himself spectacularly. I think Ms. BWR, because she dislikes Farrell, misses that.  Two, Farrel’s anti-Americanism is so over-the-top that it seems to me clearly meant to be taken as farce and satire, poking fun at European anti-Americanism, rather than taken at face value.

This is one movie I could not recommend more strongly.  Enjoy.