A song for Europe, a song of home
A successful film is made of many elements. Often, the many mechanical and logistical requirements can be carried out to perfection, but can fall flat lacking a good heart. Will Ferrell's latest offering, "Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga" is possibly the film with the biggest and purest heart seen for sometime, and is easily a serious contender for film of the year.
COVID, destroyer of social worlds, harbinger of grounded adults, has laid waste to the intricate web of cultural and social activities we all took for granted. Some of the modern world's largest tent pole international events have been slain, the sporting calendar has been devastated, but culture and entertainment are reeling too. Musical powerhouse "Phantom of the Opera" has run continuously in London's West End since opening in 1986 and has finally conceded defeat to current year. Films and TV shows have been put on hiatus, unable to continue production, cultural festivals and music concerts have been silenced. Amongst the victims, was the curious carnival of camp that is the Eurovision song contest. It is one of those great happenstances of history, those quirks of fate, that this was the year that Will Ferrel's love letter to the competition was to be released to coincide with the May event. What has happened instead is that a film has found itself as the defacto 2020 Eurovision song contest, with layers of joy, wonder humanity and fabulous music that should really see it become a part of our TV viewing habits in May just as Love Actually and Die Hard get thrust on to our screens in December.
The premise needs little explanation, Ferrell plays Lars Erikssong (yes, we can all see what they did there), an immature dreamer from a small town in Iceland. His only ambition in life to win the Eurovision title. Through a hideous macabre turn of events, his duo group, Fire Saga, alongside Sigrit Ericksdóttir, played to joyous innocent perfection by Rachel McAdams, are sent to Edinburgh to represent their country at the contest. Character growth and journeys of discovery ensue with some show tunes, gags (some catchphrases such as "The Elves went too far" and "Wifi in every room" to add to your Anchorman one liners) and the obligatory walk of dejection and final act race to the finish before all ends well. Think Richard Curtis with sequins. So far nothing unexpected, so why is this such a worthy challenger for the film that 2020 needs?
An early indicator is Pierce Brosnan delivering dialogue in Icelandic in the opening scenes. Bringing to mind his role seeking a musical note in ABBA musical panto Mamma Mia. There are some soft guffaws and an outrageous perfect Eurovision style nonsense tune with suggestive lyrics which could well become a Beer Keller staple for many years to come. Then as it starts to unfold, it becomes clear there are no real "bad guys". The characters that inject jeopardy are not operating out of malice, the Russian and Greek competitors serving as the foils for our principle pair. Then there is a gloriously absurd musical theatre style medley that combines the major characters and several actual Eurovision cameos before the film provides us with all the beats of a Eurovision night that we all know and love, or deride. It performs the role so well, that you can enjoy it whether you are fond of Eurovision or not. The votes, Graham Norton commentates (If only Terry had still been around) and a series of perfectly hewn Eurovision songs parade across the screen. The film is probably about half an hour overlong but it generates a sense of familiarity and delight, like discovering new shoes are immediately as comfy as the old pair you had on for years. The stitching magic is the music.
The story behind the music is as delightful as the film itself. Ferrell is not just seeking something to lampoon from American heights, he is a dedicated and besotted fan. This film truly is a love letter. He was first exposed to the contest through his Swedish wife over twenty years ago, he was in attendance for both the 2018 and 2019 contests, and the production shot several scenes during the 2019 event to capture some of the authenticity of the night. It is a project conceived in his adoration for this kitsch thing we Europeans do. And rightly so, he knew, to get it right, the music had to be right.
They recruited Savan Kotecha to provide the music. You probably don't know his name, but you will have heard his work, having written for a host of global acts, Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, The Weeknd, Westlife, Britney Spears, Ellie Goulding, Usher, Maroon 5, One Direction, Nicki Minaj, Cristina Aguilera and Demi Lovato, to just name a few. He also had the role of vocal coach on both the US and UK shows of the X-Factor. The man knows his pop. He is though, very candid about the cynical attitudes held toward the Eurovision musical style. “Serious songwriters in the big pop-music world kind of make fun of things like Eurovision,” Kotecha says. “But when you have to do it, you realise it’s actually a craft in itself.” So he then set about assembling a team with Euros experience to capture that essence. This piece in Vulture.com provides all the lowdown on the process of creating the astonishing array of tunes, I recommend diving into this once you have watched the film to avoid spoilers, because the music is at the heart of the film as much as any narrative beat or character arc. Alongside the Beer Keller folk song "Jaja Ding Dong", there is the Euro pop dance beats of "Volcano Man" (Kotecha outsourced the project to Swedish writing duo Gustaf Holter and Christian Persson with the design brief “Remember that episode of Friends where Ross thinks he’s a musician, and he’s playing the keyboard, and he really just takes himself super-seriously?”), The Scandinavian folk ballad that transforms into a another joyous rollicking Euro pop treat, "Double Trouble", the hilarious, outrageously straight camp "Lion of Love", "Running with Wolves", the extravagant heavy Rock pop anthem and many more to look forward to.
In fact, the emotional denouement, the epic climax comes out of clear blue water to wrestle you to the ground and leave you teary eyed and emotionally transported. A soaring power ballad that does that thing we often forget music can do, burrows deep into your being, your soul and points to a deep unconscious instinct, a shared emotion of loss, love, family, empathy and home. Nobody sits down to a Will Ferrell film expecting to be moved in quite a way, well not since Elf anyway. But he does it here, well, Rachel McAdams does it. Well, actually Swedish singer Molly Sandén does it. Many have compared "Husavik (My hometown)" to "Never Enough" the yearning power ballad from "The Greatest Showman". There are narrative and tonal similarities without doubt, but this one lands true because we are in 2020. So many of us have been separated from home, from family, from loved ones, it is almost a universal constant for 2020, like a limited edition death or taxes, and through happenstance, planets aligning, stars burning brighter, this simple but devastatingly powerful song has arrived to capture the essence of the moment. It will stir you, if you are anything like me, you will smile gently as your throat will get tight, your eyes well up and snuffle and at the same time you will feel an inexplicable feeling of pride in being from Iceland, regardless of your own heritage. You will be moved.
It is probably without question that this song in particular should be a very hot contender for the Oscar for best song for the year. With COVID having shut the cinemas, the rules on permitting nominations from streaming services for the awards have been changed, only a fool would bet against this song being performed at the next Oscars ceremony. That is not the only performance this ballad deserves. It is an absolute certainty that it will be a part of the voting intermission show at the next Eurovision contest. Perhaps several songs from the film will feature in what could be a mini contest vignette all of its own. The slot that launched Riverdance will probably see this film turned into a musical theatre phenomenon all of its own.
Yes, many factors come together to make a good film and sometimes a good heart is something that can carry a film beyond expectations. Sometimes it is just serendipity. Eurovision got cancelled, life as we knew it got cancelled and this film is here to give you a big warm hug and remind you everything is going to be ok. Sometimes the planets align and the stars burn brighter, but we especially notice these moments of wonder when we are in the dark.
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is available on Netflix now.
Husavik (My hometown) will be as all pervasive as "Let it go". Prepare yourself accordingly.