Film review: Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

I adore the Eurovision Song Contest. I love every single thing about it.  The terrible, forced patter and atrocious comic timing of the hosts who spend the entire contest silently seething that it wasn’t a solo gig. The weird “postcards” where each contestant must showcase an element of their home country which fits some specious theme like “warmth” or “destiny”. The baffling halftime show. The excruciating banter in the green room interviews which is usually so bad you want to cut your ears off so you don’t have to listen to it anymore. The shameless political voting. The tech delays. The people who dress like it’s their last day on earth to deliver their country’s votes and milk every single drop out of their one minute of fame. The snarky, hilarious commentary of Graham Norton and before him the great and terribly missed Sir Terry Wogan. And the songs. Most of all I love the songs. Ballads, catchy Euro-pop, stone-cold bangers and insane weirdness the Eurovision Song Contest has it all. Contestants from a billion countries clammer to perform huge numbers in insane costumes with spectacular staging for the prize of being able to host the exceptionally expensive extravaganza the following year. It’s a night of the sublime and the ridiculous and it’s my favourite night of the year. 

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is very much like the contest itself. It’s far too long, incredibly bloated, only fitfully funny and yet you can’t stop smiling and wondering why you find yourself tearing up at the end.

Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams stars as Lars and Sigrit, childhood friends from the town of Húsavík in Iceland. They have a band called Fire Saga and their dream is to represent Iceland at the Eurovision Song Contest. (Will Ferrel presumably chose Iceland as they’ve never won the competition but fate decreed the film would come out in the one year that had the contest run Iceland would definitely have won for this killer bop.) When a terrible accident befalls all the other  Icelandic contestants’ Fire Saga find themselves with a chance of fulfilling their dream -winning Eurovision. But their complicated feelings for each other, as well as the dastardly charms of Russian contestant Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens) may end up pulling them apart forever. 

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is an odd beast of a film. It seems to have sharply divided critics and audiences who either think it’s brilliant or terrible. Part of the problem is that people were probably expecting it to be, well, funnier.  Given the script was written by Will Ferrell (with Saturday Night Live writer Andrew Steele) I was expecting a riotous satire of Eurovision along the lines of the mockumentary Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (if you haven’t seen it go rectify that immediately -it’s pure joy). But from a comedy perspective Fire Saga is strictly minor league Ferrell. I smiled throughout but can’t hand on heart say I laughed out loud once. With this being an officially branded Eurovision film Ferrell probably couldn’t be as sharp as he may have wanted to be. It’s essentially a 2-hour glossy ad for why you should watch Eurovision next year. It just isn’t the laugh out loud comedy many were expecting. Nor is it a cutting satire -in fact scenes where Ferrell repeatedly insults a group of American tourists jar horribly with the warm, kind tone of the rest of the piece. Fire Saga utilises Ferrell’s prowess as a quirky romantic lead but the laughs are few and far between.

The other issue is that like the contest itself Fire Saga is wildly overlong. It was clearly edited by a drunken intern- I have no idea what director David Dobkin was thinking. There is no justification for this movie being 2 hours long. The slightly slow start, while they establish the characters, is understandable but from the moment Sigrit and Lars get to Edinburgh (or well Glasgow – the film mixes the two) the pace grinds to a screeching halt. Also while we’re talking about the locale in what universe would Edinburgh be hosting Eurovision? That would mean that the UK won. I mean the gag in the film about how the UK entry is good but won’t get anywhere because everyone hates the UK is brutally accurate. The pacing is so off it’s painful. We did not need to see Sigrit and Lars wandering around Edinburgh forever or Lars arguing with US tourists. I found myself screaming “get on with it” quite a lot.

Lemtov’s gloriously OTT party is very entertaining. The “song a long” where past Eurovision contestants including Loreen, (winner 2012)  Netta, (winner 2018)Alexander Rybak (winner 2009), Conchita Wurst (winner 2014) and other contestants sing a mash-up of Waterloo, Believe and Ray of Light is pure fan service. But the sequence didn’t need to actually be in the film. It took Netflix a nanosecond to turn it into a promo video and it should have stayed that way. If they were going to make the film two hours long they should have at least included full performances of all the songs given the effort they went into writing them and making sure they aped previous Eurovision hits.

The film also raises and instantly drops some fun ideas. The ghost of one of the dead contestants (Demi Lovato) appears to warn Ferrell he’s in danger but the gag goes absolutely nowhere. The glorious Natasia Demetriou (of What We Do in the Shadows fame) shows up as a choreographer but vanishes as quickly as she appears. 

Along with the pacing issues the film never really gets a handle on Lars and Sigrit’s characterisation. They have no inner lives. He wants to win, has a disapproving father (Pierce Brosnan who gets to glower a lot while being obscenely hot -the man is a full-on silver fox) and is terrified of being laughed at, which is weird because if your desire is to win Eurovision you have to expect to have people gently mocking you -it’s the nature of the contest. She loves him and wants a baby. They’re not exactly the most nuanced of characters. Ferrell and McAdams’s Icelandic accents are intentionally ropey but the film cannily offsets any potential criticism by surrounding them with actual Icelandic actors (who do a lot with very little). 

The film also can’t decide how naff Fire Saga is actually meant to be. We’re told that Sigrit and Lars are total losers while the film repeatedly shows us that they’re actually pretty cool. Their Icelandic friends laugh at how terrible their songs are but they’re perfect Eurovision material. We’re meant to laugh at their cosy, brightly coloured “Icelandic” gear but Rachel McAdam’s outfits are cute as hell (I want that purple cardi!) while Will Ferrell outfits are so hipster cool I could see guys in Shoreditch wearing them in a heartbeat. 

Yet despite all of the films many flaws and terrible, terrible pacing I still absolutely loved it. Rachel McAdams is endlessly winning as Sigrit. She manages to make her completely guileless but not stupid which isn’t an easy balance to pull off. McAdams looks phenomenal throughout and Sigrit is so sweet and kind it’s hard not to fall in love with her. It’s another reminder (after the equally brilliant Games Night) that McAdams is a comedic force to be reckoned with. Ferrell’s Lars spends most of the film being a complete idiot before blossoming into the romantic lead at the moment the script needs him too. Plus I respect a man who is willing to be strapped into a terrifying 100 feet high hamster wheel contraption for the sake of a gag.

The films most valuable player is Dan Stevens as Lemtov who effortlessly (and I do mean effortlessly) steals the entire film. Lemtov is filthy rich, narcissistic and completely ridiculous. He wears loud tailored gold brocade suits with no shirt and has bouffant bleached blonde hair. His general look is that of an unholy marriage of Princess Diana and George Michael. Lemtov’s operatic, homoerotic performance of instant classic Lion of Love is the highpoint of the film. The piece is actually sung by Erik Mjones who Stevens wonderfully deferred to after initially wanting to sing his own vocals.

Lemtov is positioned as the villain of the piece but crucially he’s not actually a bad guy. Lemtov never mocks Sigrit. His interest in her isn’t part of a nefarious plot. He just sees something in her that he responds to and he genuinely wants only the best for her. Given how closely the rest of the film adheres to the comedy romance playbook Fire Saga’s most innovative aspect may be that the “obstacles to true love” – Lemtov and Mita (Melissanthi Mahut) are actually decent, kind, human beings. Mita bewilderingly falls for Lars but again it’s not part of a scheme. She just likes him. We’re all looking for that someone who recognises something special within us and there’s something rather lovely about the way the movie has Lemtov and Sigrit, Mita and Lars connecting. The best, most emotionally truthful scene in the entire film is not between our leads, but a brief moment of honesty and connection between Lemtov and Mita. Stevens is likely to find himself an army of followers after this and it would be very well deserved (go and watch The Guest immediately).

Given it’s a Eurovision movie Fire Saga lives or dies by its songs and thank god they are brilliant. Double Trouble is a bop that will never ever leave your head. I actually thought Ja Ja Ding Dong was an old Eurovision number but nope created for the movie and it’s so perfect in its silliness with lyrics that get ruder by the minute. The other acts are perfect takes on past Eurovision glories and while it takes the length of a bible to get there Fire Saga’s final performance is everything a Eurovision winner should be. Húsavík  is simple, beautifully staged and with vocals to die for. Swedish singer Molly Sanden (who is billed as My Marianne on the album) is Sigrit’s voice (the film blended her vocals with McAdams) and she’s got a killer set of pipes. The final number is oddly touching and I found myself re-winding and watching it again as soon as it finished. I may have seen it three times now (well by three I mean ten). It’s triumphant and beautiful and made me cry. Everything a good Eurovision number should.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, much like the contest itself, is both terrible and wonderful all at the same time. Like most of Netflix’s cinematic output it’s a solid three-star film and yet it just put such a smile on my face that I can’t be angry at its many structural flaws. Rachel McAdams and Dan Stevens are both superb and Ferrell gets points for letting others shine.  It’s an incredibly charming, gentle romantic comedy that celebrates the kinder things in life. Right now I can’t think of anything more perfect to watch. 

Objectively? 3/ 5 stars

Because I can’t stop smiling at it or singing the soundtrack – 5/5 stars

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is on Netflix worldwide now