So I just watched Eurovision Song Contest – The Story of Fire Saga. E.S.C depicts the misadventures of Fire Saga, an Icelandic band composed of Lars and Sigrit, a couple of lifelong friends who are determined to win the Eurovision Song Contest. I’ll start off by saying I usually keep my distance from Netflix distributions as I tend to associate the label with cheap production values. I hasten to admit that I’ve been proven wrong time and time again, however I’ve also been gummed out by many a toothless Netflix film. Consequently, I started watching this film without any real hope of enjoying it. Thankfully, there is much more to this film than I thought.
The film was intended to be released in May 2020, on the actual day of the contest. Alas, as with all things 2020, the real life song contest was scrapped for the first time ever, leaving us with this fictional version to remember to this year’s show-that-never-was by.
The film starts with a very young Lars Erikkson in 1974. Just having lost his mother, he’s down in the dumps and totally disinterested in watching the show with his father (Pierce Brosnan), his friend Sigrit and an assorted collection of neighbourhood characters.
Lars’ interests in the show quickly picks up once Annifrid and Agnetha come on the screen. Much to the guests’ amusement and his humiliated father’s chagrin who instantly starts hating everything related to Eurovision and Abba (how convenient!), he starts jumping and dancing to the music, swearing that one day he himself would win the Eurovision. That performance would change his life and his outlook on Eurovision forever.
Cut to present day – soon before Eurovision 2020. Both Lars and his childhood girlfriend Sigrit who in the first scene appeared to be of similar ages, have grown up to become Will Ferrell (52 years old) and Rachel McAdams (41 years old). Oh and yes, at 52, Lars still lives with his father and spends his days practicing his songs with Sigrit in the basement, ABBA poster plastered on the wall.
We get to see Lars and Sigrit rehearse their song Volcano Man, a take on the typically naff foreign-sounding Eurovision offerings full of uninspired, insipid lyrics such as;
‘Volcano Man, He’s got my melting heart,
Volcanic Protector Man,
A timeless hero must love too’.
However, this turns out to not be the Eurovision entry the duo plans to appear with. That honour goes to an even campier song called Double Trouble, a song that would really feel in place in the myriad of cheesy Eurovision songs that year after year, make me wonder aloud at how anyone, starting with my own wife, look forward to watching this show as if it were some sort of grand event. And for some inexplicable reason, the show is never something Eurovision enthusiasts would want to watch alone. No amount of Twistees and beer are ever enough to get me through the night.
Lars is a childish, selfish person with little to no redeeming qualities about him. To an extent, he is just another version of the man-child that Ferrell repeatedly does. For other examples, kindly refer to Step Brothers (2008) and Daddy’s Home (2015). This time round, most of his childlike affectations can be brushed off as a foreigner’s stinted effort at communicating in English. We’re constantly reminded that this character isn’t American as he speaks in a horrendous and terribly put on accent which fluctuating strengths, more often than not, depending on the punchline.
His goal is not simply to participate in Eurovision but to actually win it. It feels like his whole reason for living hinges on him winning the contest. What makes this particular character fun to watch more than most of Ferrell’s others is that beyond the fact that he’s driven by a lifelong dream, it is one that is shared by many thousands across Europe and beyond. As a one-time Eurovision enthusiast myself (yeah, yeah, whatever…) and as a citizen of one of the smallest participating countries in the contest, I could very much understand where Lars was coming from. McAdams gave a spirited performance as the sweet, innocent Sigrit who believes wholeheartedly in Fairies and that through their benevolence, she and Lars will gain entry into the Eurovision. Lars doesn’t believe in Elves, although he kindly tolerates Sigrit’s faith-related quirks.
Lars also clearly harbours a lot of affection for Sigrit and this is reciprocated. Pairing up my generation’s It Girl with a middle aged comedian stretched my ability to suspense disbelief somewhat. But it is, after all, that kind of film! The fly in the ointment was that due to his legendary womaniser of a father, Lars and Sigrit are unsure if they’re actually brother and sister. Nothing ever really came out of their relationship. They instead chose to focus their energies on trying for the Eurovision and playing covers at the local tavern where all the patrons ever want to hear is their ABBA-ish, innuendo laden pop song Ja Ja Ding Dong..
One of the better character portrayals had to be Dan Stevens’ as the flamboyant, stoically ‘he-him pronoun’ Russian contestant Alexander Lemtov who quickly falls head over heels for Sigrit even though he seeks happiness through different paths, which alas, are forbidden by Mother Russia.
Lemtov is a PG-13 version of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Bruno character. Everything about him is larger than life, ranging from his dance moves to the star-studded mega parties he hosts. The film’s centrepiece, a (supposedly) spontaneous flash-mob-style sequence featuring a number of Eurovision faces from past years, including one iconic bearded lady, happens during a Great-Gatsby like party he throws for all the contestants. During this sequence, the film takes great liberties style-wise, with familiar (and not so familiar) past contestants performing to the camera as if in a music video.
Mishmash of Styles
At times, the film felt unsure of its own identity. It generally played as a standard Hollywood rags-to-riches competition story and as a straight comedy, but it also dabbled in the realms of parody film. The scene where Lars is in the dressing room and is visited by the ever-critical vision of his father reflected in the mirror feels like a direct reference to the ruinous father-son relationship in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007) (the film titles are also uncannily similar!), which in itself is a direct homage/pastiche of the Joaquin Phoenix helmed masterpiece Walk The Line (2005). There is also another nod to both these films in another scene, much later on, but I’ll let you spot it for yourself.
Why it resonated with me
Once a year I get to vent my disgust and disillusion about what the Eurovision Song Contest’s become. For the past six, seven years, I was never even inclined to listen to Malta’s entry before the actual competition date. The Eurovision Song Contest does absolutely nothing to me. I simply see it a magnificently lighted and choreographed show laden with hyper sexuality, badly written scripts in horrendous English. Talent is many times forsaken for image and the theme-song to Neighbors (1985) is on everyone’s lips during the voting time. I simply can’t stand the Eurovision Song Contest.
Having said that, this film took me back to when I was fourteen years old watching Ira Losco’s
performance of the song 7th Wonder. I liked the song, I thought it was a winning song, and like so many others, was hopelessly infatuated with Losco. I also remember sitting totally engrossed on the very edge of the sofa seat during voting, not letting anyone make a sound, hanging on to every point Malta received from the other contesting countries.
Points that ultimately weren’t enough for Malta to win the Eurovision. So close! But no cigar.
This was the second time Malta had placed second in Eurovision. It had happened once before with Chiara’s The One That I Love in 1998. I was too young to care back then.
My point is – I get this film. I was reminded of the chest swelled with pride the young patriotic me would have whenever I witnessed my little neighbourless and powerless country receiving its few measly points. I knew in my heart that any awarded points could only be gestures of appreciation of talent. Malta took more than a while to catch up where lighting and special effects were concerned. And most of the songs that we participated with in the 1990s actually still hold up to this day.
Similarly to Malta (or to be precise, the Malta I grew up in), Lars and Sigrit’s hometown of Húsavík is small and humble and homey place. Everyone knows each other and is connected to each other in some way.
When Lars found out that he and Sigrit were to participate in the festival, he announced the news to the whole town by ringing a bell which was only to be used in emergency. When he’s taken in for questioning, the arresting officers also happen to be childhood acquaintances and feel comfortable venting their opinions on the subject of Lars’ weirdness and also, how Sigrit should make better romantic choices. This is an aspect that will definitely strike a chord with Maltese audience members.
I also chuckled when I realised that just as Lars and Sigrit’s tavern audience were only interesting in hearing Ja Ja Ding Dong, many Maltese Summer festivals and concerts are only considered valid once Xemx, Viva Malta and the refrain to what has become the quintessential Maltese wedding dance tune, Sweet Caroline are performed. Don’t ask.
I may not be from Iceland and I may not be able to stand half an hour of the Eurovision, but this film reminded me that I was once innocently passionate and chronically patriotic about belonging to a small fish-shaped island competing against sharks in a grand-scale contest. That even such an abysmal show can connect people together. This happens in Malta year in, year out. People are united through both their love and hate for the Eurovision.
(In) Accuracies Spotted
I surprised myself at being distracted by a couple of technical goofs related to the actual goings-on of the two-day festival (which as far as I know is actually spread out over three days peaking with the semi-final and final shows over the weekend), however these would most probably go unnoticed by American audiences. The film may give a representation of a (once) European show, but the Hollywoodized twist remains as American as the hot dog.
The most glaring one of them all was that in the film, the semi-finals also included votes by jury, something that in actuality only happens in the final. What happens during Fire Saga’s final performance was an expected, clichéd and also apt way to close this brand of Hollywood film. I honestly wouldn’t have expected anything different. However, (and I don’t think this is debatable), it would never be possible to have such an off-the-script event happen in the live show.
One final inaccuracy for those of you who have made it thus far – most of the contesting songs that are featured in the film are actually good. Not saying they can claim any artistic merit, far from it, but they manage to sound quite Eurovisiony while at the same time being much better than most of the forgettable shit that drills our ear drums straight through, year in year out.
There was one conspicuous accuracy however that deserves a mention for its bluntness and also for being so damn poignant. At the end of the day, even in this fictitious version of the show that takes place in an alternative 2020 – the Crazy, Anything’s Possible Year – no one gave Malta any love. Our fate at this festival is now irrevocably damned by a Will Ferrell comedy.
Makes a grown man cry.
On another note, most 2020 weddings were postponed and Neil Diamond’s larynx got its overdue rest.
Have you watched Eurovision Song Contest – The Fire Saga Story? What did you think of it? Has this review affected your opinion of it in any way? Let me know in the comments below!