City Paper is not for tourists
Susan Sontag could never have imagined the modern iteration of the Eurovision Song Contest. Yes, Sontag wrote “On Camp” a full decade before ABBA won the contest with “Waterloo,” but now it is such a strange, imagination-stirring mix of cheese and sincerity. Her idea of camp does not fit neatly into the competition, but Will Ferrell does. The comedian always has a weird edge to him, and his capacity for silliness is only matched by the conviction in which he does it. He and Eurovision compliment each other quite well, so it is no surprise Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is such a consistent delight. This is an underdog story that gently mocks its subject, without ever really punching down.
Ferrell plays Lars, an Icelandic musician who dreams of winning Eurovision with Fire Saga, a group he founded with his longtime friend Sigrit (Rachel McAdams). They have enthusiasm and Sigrit is a gifted vocalist, but everyone in their small hometown thinks they are losers, especially Lars’ father Erick (Pierce Brosnan). An elaborate corruption scheme somehow gets them into the contest anyway: The Icelandic government worries they cannot handle the hosting responsibilities, and since the winning country must host the following year, they figure Fire Saga is their best hope for failure. This is mostly a pretense for the pair to leave Iceland for Scotland, where they can hobnob with Eurovision’s best. This includes Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens), the favorite who’s resigned to not being openly gay as long as he’s stuck in Putin’s Russia.
Director David Dobkin—who was born in D.C.—has the good sense to stand back and let his actors work their magic. He got his start shooting music videos, so he understands the rhythms and demands of filming recorded music. Like This Is Spinal Tap, a film that clearly influenced this one, Dobkin understands that the best punch lines require some build-up. By the time Dobkin gets to Fire Saga’s big performance, there are visual gags so funny they cannot be spoiled, plus a well-earned sense of comic anarchy. Unlike the Judd Apatow model where the dialogue is the primary source of humor, Ferrell’s script (co-written with Andrew Steele) creates funny situations.
Another key to the film’s success is how it treats its characters. Lars and Sigrit are often the butt of jokes, but Ferrell and McAdams show us they are in on it. Brosnan plays a familiar archetype (the gruff parent who ultimately comes around), and while he is blunt, he is never cruel. Unlike other Ferrell vehicles like Anchorman or Step Brothers, there is no malice here. All the characters are essentially good-natured and care about each other. Intentionally or not, this gives Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga high replay value. You’ll want to revisit these characters more than once, and not just because their songs are better than you might expect. This film is about a tight-knit community of outsiders, so it is welcoming to those who are on their wavelength.
The music continues in the tradition of ABBA, a mix of populist bombast and good cheer. What adds a palpable sense of credibility and more feel-good vibes are that many Eurovision participants are also in the film, recreating the tunes that helped put them on the world stage. The real asset is McAdams, who further proves her comedic bonafides. She previously collaborated with Dobkin on Wedding Crashers, but here she is more than just an object of affection. Sigrit follows Lars because she loves him—he’s too single-minded to see it—so there is an intriguing subplot where she tries and tries again to show she will not wait forever. When she lands one-liners, they’re all the more hilarious.
You do not need to be a Eurovision fan in order to appreciate Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. Longtime fans will probably be relieved that Dobkin, Ferrell, McAdams, and others treat the premise with the amount of respect it deserves, and nothing more. The highest compliment I can give this film is that newcomers to Eurovision, after seeing this, will no doubt yearn for the contest to return next year.
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga premieres on Netflix on June 26.