When aspiring musicians Lars and Sigrit are given the opportunity to represent Iceland at the world’s biggest song competition, they finally have a chance to prove that any dream worth having is a dream worth fighting for.
This is a film in praise of small towns, big dreams and even bigger hamster wheels; of too-tight catsuits, camel toes and cameos; and – hotter, in both senses, than a thermal spring – Pierce Brosnan in a zip-up cardi.
Eurovision Song Contest:The Story of Fire Saga combines realism (Iceland is still broke after the financial crisis, leaving the country’s bank chief terrified of a Eurovision win because it’ll re-bankrupt the country), folklore (elves have a key role to play) and spangles.
It’s also one of the kindest, most good-natured movies I’ve seen in a long time.
Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams play Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Eriksdottir, two halves of local pub band Fire Saga. Lifelong friends whose path to true love is constantly interrupted by the inconvenient chance that they may be brother and sister, they find themselves catapulted to the Edinburgh finals of the Eurovision Song Contest.
One of the lovely things about Eurovision Song Contest, particularly in 2020 as we look back with hollow laughter at 2016, the year we thought was as bad as things were likely to get, is that nearly every character is genuinely nice even as terrible things happen; from appalling fiery deaths to appalling crimes against fashion.
Russian entry and bookies’ favourite Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens) sets his sights on the guileless Sigrit from their first meeting, but wants to not seduce and run away, but seduce and run away with her (as inducements he offers her “a Fabergé egg, personal submersible, pet tiger…”). His friend Mita (Melissanthi Mahut), singer of Greece’s entry, takes a shine to the guileless, gormless Lars at that same glitzy party.
And to top it off, with the finals held in Edinburgh, this is an alternate universe where the UK actually won Eurovision the previous year.
Entering the contest has been Lars’s lifelong dream but he’s now middle-aged and still living with his hot dad. Erik (Pierce Brosnan) feels Lars is wasting his life; Sigrit’s mum Helka (Elin Petersdottir) thinks Lars’s Eurovision dream is holding her back.
The duo’s local audience in their tiny town of Husavik turns up purely because there’s nothing else to do, and the only song Lars has written that anyone wants to hear is Ya Ya Ding Dong, which sounds as if it could indeed win Eurovision, though in 1975.
It’s a town fuelled by fish, minor grudges, beer, Erik’s massive sexual appetite and Ya Ya Ding Dong.
Lars is held back not just by a general lack of songwriting ability, Ya Ya Ding Dong notwithstanding; it’s as much his own lack of self-belief. It’s not easy to trust in yourself when your dad is not only embarrassed by you but is also incredibly handsome, even while wearing a zip-up cardigan. He keeps plodding on creating a new Eurovision song every year though, without even Sigrit’s sincere belief in elven assistance to give him a boost.
But this time can it be different? Can Lars and Sigrit win the Iceland Song Contest, win the Eurovision semi finals, Win the Eurovision final, finally impress Lars’s father, and fall in love without the shadow of possible siblinghood hanging over them? Hmmm.
Fire Saga’s path to the semis in Edinburgh is smoothed by a disaster both terrible and improbable that befalls the other 11 Iceland Song Contest finalists, including top-notch singer and first place shoe-in Katiana (Demi Lovato, sending herself up with gusto).
Once in Edinburgh for the finals, Lars is determined they will win: costumes and props become more outlandish (that hamster wheel, that camel toe), the likelihood of on-stage disaster more of a dead-cert. Meanwhile their love for each other is again endangered: by Alexander’s pursuit of Sigrit, Mita’s pursuit of Lars, and Erik’s over-enthusiastic shagging history.
There are some hilarious moments but really this is more joyfully humorous than a gagfest. It does droop in the middle; two hours is too long to sustain such goofball innocence unless it’s Elf, but to criticise it would be like kicking a kitten in a tutu.
The humour builds from the sweetness-bordering-on-dimwittery of Lars and Sigrit, Erik’s decades-long skill with the ladies, and the cheerily glitzy melodrama of the contest itself (lamé catsuits, Viking helmets, skulls, national dress).
Eurovision as a cultural event – competitive yet predicably voted, earnestly over the top, loved both ironically and unironically – is sent up relentlessly but with huge affection and a thorough understanding of why it works.
(Will Ferrell has said he first saw the contest after visiting his wife’s family in Sweden, and I did wonder, as Sigrit ripped off half the skirt of a hideous stage dress Lars had designed for her, if Ferrell was actually tipping his hat to 1981 winners Bucks Fizz.)
There are some familiar faces, and performers who should be familiar to me but weren’t. Graham Norton cameos as himself, commentating on the disasters unfolding before his eyes, extraordinary even to one with his level of Eurovision immunity. A “songalong” at Alexander’s glossy pre-finals party with guests spontaneously bursting into song features a whole contest-worth of past winners, of whom I sadly only recognised two.
I actually liked the songs, though I do have a soft spot for any tune combining foot-stomping rock, europop and power balladry performed by earnestly impassioned singers in unforgiving catsuits. (The singing is actually good too – Molly Sandén is the voice behind Rachel McAdams’ powerhouse delivery.)
Ferrell and McAdams have more chemistry than Marie and Pierre Curie, though any acting is limited to making big facial expressions that would work perfectly well as a mime with no dialogue at all.
Pierce Brosnan only appears as Erik in the Icelandic scenes at the start and end of the film (and looks to be de-aged in the pre-credit flashback to the mid-70s, tracing Lars and Sigrit’s long-time love of Eurovision); but with his grey and white beard, blue eyes and that cardi, you can easily see why the paternity of so many of the town’s children is in doubt.
(And if your love for Pierce was shaken by his attempts at singing in Mamma Mia, fear not. In Eurovision Song Contest he only opens his mouth to insult poor Lars.)
Dan Stevens plays Alexander Lemtov with utter conviction in his rhinestone jumpers and gold brocade suits, his perfect blue eyes surrounded by flicky brond hair. His performance of Russian Eurovision entry Lion Of Love is so camp it makes Tight Fit’s 1980s classic The Lion Sleeps Tonight sound like monastic plainsong.
I fully expect the Fire Saga cinematic universe to now allow Lemtov to fulfil his musical destiny with his own event cinema “popera” extravaganza, hopefully ending with Alfie Boe appearing at the top of a huge staircase surrounded by fireworks as they duet on a medley of 80s synth hits.
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga is available on Netflix
Watch the trailer (and if you honestly can’t bear to sit through the singing to find out what happens, scroll down):
Spoilers! The head of the Bank of Iceland turns out to have caused the boat explosion that killed Katiana and the others, but the elves kill him in revenge. Lars goes home in a huff after a disastrous semi final performance and doesn’t know they’ve been voted through to the finals. He returns just in time to find Sigrit performing her new song at the final, which everyone loves but they can’t win as it’s not the song they entered. The two are reconciled as it turns out Helka is probably the only woman in the town that Erik wasn’t shagging so they are NOT related. Lemtov wins the contest. Everyone is happy! The lesson is, don’t fuck with the elves.