The enjoyably – extravagantly – titled Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is just what I needed during the pandemic, and a rarity in contemporary cinema – a genuine feel-good film. In a way, the title of this Netflix release tells the whole story, since Fire Saga is so remarkably and refreshingly simple in its premise that it’s a real tonic to the narrative complexity – often the bloated narrative complexity – of current longform television. Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams play Lars and Sigrit, a pair of Icelandic singers who together comprise Fire Saga, a musical duo who surprisingly become the country’s bid for Eurovision. As Fire Saga, they’re neither especially good nor especially bad, but a series of emotional epiphanies propel them to cheesy greatness when they eventually take the stage in Edinbugh.
In many ways this plays as a Saturday Night Live sketch expanded out into an entire film, and while it’s a bit too long at over two hours, there’s a real art to the way that director David Dobkin transplants an older kind of feel-good mentality onto the present – or, rather, a charming and deliberate artlessness that’s almost impossible to imagine outside the peculiar permission provided by Eurovision to depict happiness in such a frank and overt way. Since Eurovision is already self-parodic, it tends to deflect irony, so it makes sense that Fire Saga opts for an affectionate homage more than a send-up. Coming of age in the 70s, Eurovision has operated as a space to contemplate and enjoy how that pre-ironic 70s milieu might look if extended into the present, and Fire Saga latches onto this possibility with glee, presenting us with a series of costumes, dances and numbers that play like a gloriously refurbished 70s.
Among other things, that means that the music of Fire Saga, like the music of Eurovision itself, is poised at that moment in the 90s when Europop took the ABBA-inspired sound of Eurovision about as far as it could go without totally morphing into something else. Fire Saga is obsessed with this Europop style – in Fire Saga’s terrific single “Double Trouble,” in the generous amount of time devoted to other Eurovision acts, and, most dramatically, in a Europop-montage medley in which the cast join up with past Eurovision winners to sing “Believe,” “Ray of Light,” I Gotta Feeling” and a delirious dance remix of ABBA’s “Waterloo.”
While there are some downbeat moments, usually involving Ferrell and McAdams, the entire film thus unfolds like an expanded Eurovision act, full of extravagant decors, locations and set pieces, all painted in wonderfully lurid and tasteless hues. Feel-good in a cheesy yet irresistible way, the whole vibe of Eurovision and Europop plays like a throwback to 90s club culture – and to a time when Europe seemed to have more potential for unity than it does in the present. Europop was genuinely and garishly global, or at least continental, in its ambitions, and that sense of scale is present here too, from the sweeping drone footage of Iceland to the scopic proscenium and crane shots of the Eurovision main stage in Edinburgh.
In fact, watching Fire Saga is not actually all that different from watching Eurovision, not just because there are lots of actual Eurovision figures in the film, from past winners to current hosts, but because there isn’t all that much in the film outside of the competition itself. Certainly, Lars and Sigrit have their emotional ups and downs, many of them revolving around Lars’ relationship with his Icelandic father, Erick, played by Pierce Brosnan in an enjoyably absurd cameo. No sooner do these conflicts arise, however, than they are incorporated back into the flow of the competition, and into the emotional narrative of Fire Saga’s songs, which, like all Eurovision numbers, finally feel as if they’re really about the thrill of Eurovision itself.
The result is a kind of underdog competition film like Cool Runnings or Remember the Titans, in which every moment of victory or frustration is translated directly into music, or even enacted musically in real time. This really works for Ferrell, in particular, who shines in films where he has to generate a slightly and oddly heightened sincerity. In his earlier career, he’d often puncture this sincerity at some point, but in his later works he’s been experimenting with elongating it as far as it can go, creating characters and films that teeter vertiginously on the edge of full-blown comedy. You can see it, initially, in Daddy’s Home, where he steers clear of the extravagant outbursts of an earlier Ferrell, but the two high points of this late comic style are probably A Deadly Adoption, the Lifetime movie he shot with Kristen Wiig, and the bizarrely melodramatic and tragic middle act of Anchorman II: The Legend Continues.
No surprise, then, that Fire Saga is the perfect venue for this offbeat sincerity, both in its script and songs. Like a good Eurovision contestant, Ferrell dares you to take it seriously, and when you laugh, it’s more laughter of delight at his commitment to the role, rather than laughter him parodying or puncturing the competition itself. The same goes for the single, “Double Trouble,” which feels written by committee, but in the best possible way, like virtually all Eurovision anthems. No doubt it’s all baggy – over two hours! – but the silly scale of it is part of the pleasure, since for the most part, this is just what you’d want a film extrapolated from Eurovision to look and sound like, especially in a year when live music has been so muted.