The Eurovision Song Contest, whether you love it, hate it or are blissfully indifferent to it, is almost impossible to ignore.
Taking place usually in May in the nominated city of whichever country won the event the year before (COVID-19 plagued years like 2020 aside), and established in the wake of World War Two as a way of bringing the fractured continent of Europe together, Eurovision is a singing contest unlike any other.
It is bright, brash and gleefully over the top, a singing contest that might appear comical in certain respects – even fans of the event such as this reviewer will acknowledge that the cheese factor is strong with this event, which is as well known for its over-the-top theatrics as it is for its (mostly) catchy songs – but which also exhibits a tremendous amount of heart and soul and an inspirational quality which even the most cynical among us find hard to dismiss.
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, the Will Ferrell-helmed film that was originally supposed to receive a theatrical release until a certain virus intervened, celebrates both the cheesiness and the humanity of a contest in ways that will defy any expectations you may have of such an undertaking, leaving a smile on your face and a song in your heart much like the event itself.
The reason why the film succeeds so abundantly well is that it eschews any attempt to parody the event.
Certainly, you could have gone down that route and had a ton of fun doing so; even the organisers of the contest will admit that the event is ripe for a well-execute satire.
But you suspect that the end result, once the “haha, it’s bit cheesy” angle had been exploited in what would have felt like an overdone one-joke effort, would have come across as mean-spirited and patronising, the kind of attitude that has plague Eurovision for much of its recent, more colourfully exhuberant history.
For all of its more gloriously offbeat attributes and its propensity for going to excess in just about every facet of its execution (an excess, by the way, that its ardent fans, and they are legion, love every step of the way), Eurovision is at heart all about people achieving their dreams.
While it may not necessarily have been solely responsible for uniting Europe, and you could well argue, especially when the votes are rolling in that a contest may not be the best to encourage selfless international bonhomie, what Eurovision delivers in spades is the sense that here are a select group of performers realising their dreams which, unless your heart is made of concrete, is a pretty inspiring thing.
Just how inspirational becomes apparent in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga which Ferrell co-wrote, produced and stars in, when we meet Lars Ericksonssong (Will Ferrell) as a young boy in 1974 who has just lost his mother and is finding too much about life to love.
That is until ABBA, who famously won Eurovision in that year, come on stage belting out the wondrously uplifting and defiantly melodic strains of “Waterloo” and Lars is transformed into an ambitious dynamo who is determined to win the contest and bring glory to his home country of Iceland (which has never won the event) and to his small northern town of Húsavík.
Doggedly hanging onto his dream in the face of scornful dismissal by his father Erick (Pierced Brosnan) and the mocking laughter of almost every one of his fellow townsfolk, Lars sole source of support is his childhood friend Sigrit Ericksdóttir who, apart from supporting him every step of the way on his seemingly quixotic dream, also holds a candle for him so large it would make an effective Eurovision pyrotechnic prop for any act.
Together, they are Fire Saga, a middling band in a town of two thousand or so people on the far northern coast of Iceland who have next to no chance of ever representing their country, despite some gorgeously cheesy songs like “Volcano Man” and “Double Trouble”, until a brilliantly over-the-top twist of explosive fate sends them to Edinburgh, Scotland for the 2020 contest (which in real life was going to be staged in Rotterdam, The Netherlands until COVID-19 forced its cancellation).
Scrupulously observing the rules that govern the contest, such as no song being longer than three minutes and each act only being allowed to have a maximum of six people on stage, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga gently and affectionately parodies its namesake without once veering into condescension or cruel ridicule, held aloft by a tremendous amount of heart and soul which Ferrell et al prosecute without a (welcome) trace of irony.
It helps that the film, which features cameos from a who’s who of past Eurovision contestants, including past winners Norway’s Alexander Rybak (2009), Sweden’s Loreen (2012), Ukraine’s Jamala (2016), Austria’s Conchita Wurst (2017) and Israel’s Netta (2018), has been produced by someone who is an ardent fan of the event.
That’s right – Will Ferrell, thanks to his Swedish wife Viveca Paulin, has been watching the contest for a great many years, counting himself among those who love the event and who, while they can find plenty to affectionately mock should they be so inclined, see far more good in the contest than ridiculous bad.
His ardent appreciation of the event in reflected in every scene of Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga which while it has more than its share of silly, offbeat fun, with elves, overwrought song productions and visual slapstick all making an hilarious appearance, never once veers into cruel, overblown parody.
This restraint is matched by a commitment to honouring the dream of its protagonist and the woman who loves him; everyone else in his hometown and in the Iceland committee which oversees selection of the country’s Eurovision contestant may be laughing at him, but the film never does, and while there is a great deal that is amusing about Lars’s singleminded devotion to his lifelong goal and his oblivious disregard of Sigrit’s affection for him, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga holds back from turning every last element of the film into a rip-roaring, larger-than-life joke.
It’s this nuance and humanity that gives the film a solid, emotional core, the kind which is affecting in all the right ways without once being treacly or twee and which is calibrated at just the right level that it sits easily alongside the more adroitly-executed absurdist elements (which include Dan Stevens as flamboyant Russian representative Alexander Lemtov who comes close to stealing the film).
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is an unexpected gift – a film that is quite at home happily parodying the event around which it is centred but not in a cruelly derisive way that would have leached any sense of fun to be had with the premise.
Rather, it is glitzy, camp, sweet and full of a great deal of heart, just like the event itself, proving along its almost faultlessly executed two-hour running time that it is possible to parody something without destroying what makes it so loved in the first place and that while Eurovision may seem to be parodying itself at times, it is the vessel through which many a dream is realised, and that is as true of anyone who competes for real as it is for the delightfully fictional Lars and Sigrit, who prove that love and self-belief triumph over all else, even the safari-laced songs of competitors.