In a less apocalyptic timeline, this review would have started by pointing out a deep irony at the heart of Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. Its plot sees two Icelandic hopefuls compete for the crown – a relatively hopeless enterprise, considering the country has failed to land a single win in the competition’s 60-year history.
Except, if this year hadn’t come to a screeching halt due to the pandemic, that string of bad luck would almost certainly have been broken. Iceland’s entry for 2020, Daði og Gagnamagnið’s deliriously fun “Think About Things”, was the frontrunner and an internet sensation in its own right.
But, in this world, Eurovision was cancelled and Netflix’s The Story of Fire Saga was delayed by several months. It arrives now as a sympathetic gesture of sorts – a temporary balm for those desperately craving tear-away trousers and aggressive pyrotechnics. Will Ferrell, the film’s star and co-writer, is a self-confessed superfan who made sure to do the research, having taken a trip to the 2018 instalment in Lisbon. And, under the direction of Wedding Crashers’s David Dobkin, it’s exactly as silly and outlandish as it needs to be, while still paying sincere respect to one of Europe’s great cultural quirks. There are a few pops at Americans, too, to keep things humble.
All the right references are here: the man in a giant hamster wheel, musicians in monster costumes, robotically cheery presenters that never seem to blink, and a cameo from elfin violinist Alexander Rybak. The tone feels right, too. Eurovision is a wonderfully chaotic mix of camp futurism, old traditions, high fantasy, lasers, and onstage dry-humping. The film covers all that ground. Songs like “Volcano Man” nail both the epic Eurobeats and nonsense lyrics. But, though it may be studious enough to pick up on all the details, the film ultimately presents an outsider perspective. A real Eurovision audience might scoff at the idea of Edinburgh hosting the contest, since that would require the UK to actually win for once. But, presumably for tax break purposes, that’s exactly what happens here.
The film’s plucky Icelandic protagonists are Lars Erickssong (Will Ferrell) and Sigrit Ericksdottir (Rachel McAdams), who fell in love with the competition the night ABBA performed in 1974. Lars’s “extremely handsome father” (Pierce Brosnan, having a blast in knits and a Santa beard) disapproves of his son’s artistic ambitions. Sigrit’s mother (Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir) thinks she’s wasting her time on Lars. In fact, no one in the small town of Husavik has any faith in the musical duo, who audition for Eurovision under their band’s name, Fire Saga.
While Ferrell and Andrew Steele’s script doesn’t always provide the best material, the film works because its cast is so invested in the absurdity of it all. Ferrell thrives once more in the role of sweet naïf (à la Buddy in Elf), while McAdams rolls out her best Bjork impression – it’s refreshing to see a film where a female lead gets to be just as weird as her male co-star. Dan Stevens, meanwhile, revels in his role as Russian contestant Alexander Lemtov, a man who sings from his crotch and wears gold-embroidered waistcoats with nothing underneath.
True, the only one truly equipped to parody Eurovision is Eurovision itself, as it did with 2016’s “Love, Love, Peace, Peace”, performed by that year’s Swedish hosts. The song managed to cover all the same ground as The Story of Fire Saga in the space of four minutes – man in a giant hamster wheel included. But still, it’s surprising how much this film gets right.