How do you make a film about two passionate Icelandic would-be musicians who succeed in becoming their country’s representative on the immensely popular Eurovision Song Contest show and not have a single Bjork mention, let alone a single joke about the spritely songstress? Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been a Bjork fan since her earliest days with The Sugercubes, but it’s so strange that Iceland’s most famous musical export doesn’t get so much as a mention in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, the latest middling comedy from Will Ferrell (who stars and co-wrote with Andrew Steele), especially since so much of the film gives us a fairly in-depth look at the isolated life of an Icelandic fishing village in which some of the residents still very much believe in elves.
Ferrell plays Lars Erickssong, one half of the duo Fire Saga, with Rachel McAdams playing his oldest friend, constant companion, but not his love interest, Sigrit Ericksdottir (while Ferrell sings all of his own parts, McAdams’s singing voice is supplied by Swedish singer Molly Sandén). Fire Saga has never been anything more than a local band, playing the village’s one bar and never getting much enthusiasm from the crowd whenever the band wants to play original material. Still, that doesn’t stop them from living their lives as if getting on the Eurovision show is a possibility. Lars’s handsome but grumpy father Erick (Pierce Brosnan) is hugely disappointed in his son wasting his life, but that doesn’t kill Lars’s dream. The duo even manage to get an audition to be Iceland’s singing ambassadors on the show, but the odds-on favorite is clearly an angelic songstress played by Demi Lovato. When a freak accident makes Fire Saga the only band in contention still alive (perhaps as a result of gifts given to certain elves), they are automatically entered in the Eurovision contest.
A series of jokes about the simplistic nature of Icelandic culture and how Erick slept with most of the women in the village over the decades—thus making it possible that Sigrit might be Lars’ half-sister—don’t often land, and even when they do, they don’t make much of an impact. But once the story shifts to the actual contest, the film gets a bit more interesting, primarily because the music (both from Fire Saga and the other competing acts) is actually pretty good, and certainly good enough to have made it onto the real-life show.
Ferrell came up with the idea to do the film while spending time with his wife (of Swedish descent) and her family in Sweden, who watched Eurovision obsessively, and it’s clear that his intention was not to make fun of the music or those performing. This is one of the few things that seemingly brings all of Europe together, so his intention is to throw a spotlight on the unique singing contest that is as much about finding the best original song as it is finding great musicians, even if that’s at the expense of the film’s actual jokes. In addition, the relationship between Lars and Sigrit is so sweet and innocent, you almost can’t help root for them and be charmed by their passion for their fantastical music.
Naturally, the film can’t resist the temptation to include a villainous character in the mix, here in the form of Russian performer Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens), who has his eye on Sigrit—but is it in order to break up the group to better his chances; or because she has one of the best voices in the contest; or because he needs a convincing beard because he’s not-so-secretly gay (which is a bad thing in Russia)? Or is it all of the above? Stevens’ subtly seductive and vaguely homoerotic performances are some of the film’s highlights. Meanwhile, though things always seem to go wrong every time Fire Saga performs, somehow their perseverance inspires all of Europe and they actually make the Top 10 finalists, even if it almost tears them apart in the process.
The basic motivations for the two—Lars wants to win at all costs, while Sigrit just wants to make music with her partner, who she’s fallen in love with—threaten to doom their chances of winning while boggin down a lot of what’s good about the film. Directed by David Dobkin (Shanghai Knights, Wedding Crashers), Eurovision Song Contest suffers from having too much story (the running time is slightly over two hours, and there is no justification for that) and not focusing on the music even more than it already does. There are a few plot threads that pay off (Lovato’s character comes back as a charred ghost a couple times, just for giggles), but the main storyline seems inevitable and severely anticlimactic. I love the idea of dreamers fighting to make their musical dreams come true, but there are just too many better versions of that story out there to encourage people to seek this one out. The music alone almost makes it worth it, and the film is beautifully shot…but it didn’t quite hit the right notes in the end.
The film begins streaming on Netflix on Friday.
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