[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.]
Have you noticed how everything sucks shit? We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, our government is too incompetent to handle it with any sense of effectiveness, our peers seemingly can’t be bothered to put a mask on despite their peers dying, our police force is corrupt and violent and has been for years, our protestors’ easily actionable demands are literally being painted over, our most effective modes of online communication are rife with literal Nazis, and there are fireworks everywhere. It’s hard to get through days, man. I’m a clinically depressed and anxious person who tries regardless to live life with a sense of sunny silliness and optimism, and life at the moment feels fucking overcast.
This was the frame of mind I was in when I decided to throw Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga on Netflix. It was a new, silly Will Ferrell comedy; Rachel McAdams and Dan Stevens are two of my favorite performers working today; by a matter of coincidence, I had been plowing through some actual Eurovision competition highlights and songs — everything about Eurovision felt like a refreshing antidote to the poison coursing through my mental health, a piece of medicine that was also a piece of dessert. I was craving an Anchorman, I would take a Semi-Pro.
Eurovision isn’t like either of those films. Nor is it like Wedding Crashers, the last Ferrell-McAdams joint from the same director, David Dobkin. If it can be compared to any other Ferrell comedy, the closest I can come up with is Stranger than Fiction with a seasoning of Blades of Glory. I’m not even sure if it’s interested in being a “comedy” the way any other comedy is. It plays more like an inspirational sports drama that happens to use wigs, elves, European accents, and theatrical songs to convey its earnest messaging. Its heart is fully, unabashedly, designedly on its sleeve. The big climactic set piece is a performance of a gorgeous ballad with barely any jokes. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Eurovision is a wholly unique experience, one that made me feel — and made me cry — throughout.
The plot of Eurovision is simple. Fire Saga are a band consisting of Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Ericksdóttir (Ferrell and McAdams). They want to compete in Eurovision, the international song competition celebrated every year, representing their home country of Iceland. Lars wants fame, glory, to expand beyond the limitations of his upbringing. Sigrit wants collaboration, understanding, to honor the traditions of her upbringing. As you might expect, the plot takes both heroes to Eurovision (on a sometimes rocky, boat explosion-filled path), forces Lars to embrace teamwork and his heritage, and allows Sigrit to soar by being her truest, fullest self. The tagline says it all: “Nobody wins solo.”
You might expect such a simple plot to thus be covered and coated in jokes. Gag-a-second comedies like Airplane! or Austin Powers use this structure commonly and very well: take a well-worn genre, craft a competent, easy-to-follow story, and use that as the trampoline for pervasive, absurd jokes. Eurovision doesn’t really jam its two-hour run time with gags, nor does it pause its story to allow for too many discursive improv runs, like other entries in the Ferrell canon. Instead, Ferrell and Andrew Steele‘s screenplay seems the most interested in… following this story as reverently as possible. Yes, there are jokes, some of which do indeed stop the momentum of what we’re following for the purpose of being a self-contained gag (i.e. the aforementioned boat explosion, or Demi Lovato‘s ghastly appearances after). But most of them seem to be ancillary byproducts of genuine character expressions.
I laugh at Lars screaming “I can fix this!” as his showy hamster wheel barrels into the audience, but I feel a great tinge of sympathy because I know it stems from his immense need to be liked and glorified. I laugh at Sigrit skipping jollily through Icelandic scenery during the “Volcano Man” video, but I feel a great tinge of pride because I know it stems from her immense need to stay connected to her hometown. And when character games and motivations collide together, it’s usually less in service of a new comedic avenue, and more in service of these characters truly, unabashedly wanting to help each other, no foolin’. Sigrit allows Lars’ imagination to roam rampant on their big Eurovision performances because she knows how much that means to him. And Lars allows Sigrit to sing the huge song she wrote, complete with an honest-to-goodness Icelandic chorus, because he knows how much that means to her. The final moments of the film aren’t of Fire Saga enjoying a newfound international success. They’re of families reunited and reconnected (don’t get me started on the Pierce Brosnan daddy issues subplot!), a new child brought into the world while an old song is played (and replayed). “Nobody wins solo” doesn’t mean what you first thought it meant, and just thinking about it is making me emotional yet again!
Beyond the shockingly, and welcomely, earnest playing of the main narrative, one subplot’s twisting of what we might expect also provided an emotional shock to the system. Stevens plays Alexander Lemtov, a flamboyant, operatic, bombastic Russian performer whose main song radiates big pansexual energy. He sings about fuckin’ with literally animalistic energy, he’s surrounded by big hot buff boys, and he very obviously seems to be lusting after Sigrit under the pretenses of being into her music. Clearly, the film is throwing an obstacle in the way of Sigrit and Lars, not only regarding their burgeoning career, but their burgeoning romance! Right?
Well… not really. While Lemtov and Sigrit do indeed “spend the night together,” all Lemtov does is braid her hair and listen to her. Lemtov is demonstrably interested in Sigrit as a performer and as a human being, giving her the room to be herself that Lars could not in those moments, introducing her to a world that doesn’t celebrate the trappings of fame and glory, but of the corny, candy-coated purity of music. At one point near the end, it seems as though Sigrit is coming on to Lemtov, asking him point blank if he’s gay. Lemtov’s response? “Of course not. I am Russian. There are no gay people in Russia.” Sigrit, rightly, challenges this “fact,” asking further if perhaps Lemtov is non-binary or gender-fluid. Lemtov, with Stevens closing his jaw with just enough intention to belie a hidden truth, refutes the identity. And then, as Sigrit is about to shoot her shot, Lemtov stops her, telling her “This is your moment” to go “sing your heart out.”
And she does, reuniting with Lars to sing that aforementioned beautiful ballad with an Icelandic chorus. Lemtov watches from the wings in utter joy and pride, truly and with no ulterior motive. Mita Xenakis (Melissanthi Mahut), his friend, representative singer from Greece, and similar “fake romantic obstacle” to Lars, joins him. Lemtov tells her, “I still win, of course, but I am happy for them. How could I not me?” Mita, empathy radiating from Mahut’s eyes, places her hand on Lemtov’s shoulder, telling him, “You deserve to be happy, too.” Lemtov’s response, with a defeated tongue click: “Mother Russia does not agree.” And Mita invites him to emigrate to Greece, where the two can enjoy statues, hang out on a yacht, and trade catty barbs about Lemtov’s spray tans. In other words: Be themselves. The moment ends with an earnest hug, connecting a surprising arc for a supporting character I expected to give me so much less depth. Everyone in this film, including and especially its lothario “villain,” just wants to be their authentic self. And I, authentically, began weeping.
In a world beset by thick, bitter clouds of pervasive toxicity, Eurovision is a wholesome ray of light. It isn’t interested in singing the song you might expect, but the song it does sing will get stuck in your head and grow on you. The logo for the real Eurovision competition, borrowed for the film’s poster, puts a heart directly in the center of its construction; an apt way to describe the film. In other words: When you watch Eurovision, your tear ducts will be in double trouble tonight.
If you want more, here are some other movies that might scratch that Eurovision itch.