Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (2020, Netflix)
Dir: David Dobkin
Some people were quite critical of this film on release, but I think they’re focusing on the weaknesses a little too much. It’s a better film than expected, even if there are things that could be better, because what it gets right are key aspects that make it surprisingly enjoyable.
Icelandic duo Fire Saga, Lars and Sigrit (Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams) have been making music together since childhood, with the dream of one day winning the Eurovision Song Contest (it’s a real thing, honestly). When they get their chance to represent Iceland, their chances of success are threatened, not least of all by their own unrequited feelings.
Unusually for me, I watched this on release day, prompted by Netflix ‘helpfully’ reminding me and the weather taking a cold and grey turn. So a rainy Friday afternoon with a mug of coffee and Netflix became a good option, and this was the top recommendation.
The story follows a well-worn structure, filled with tropes that are tried and tested, especially as they work with the contest format and escalating stakes and performances. There’s a will-they-won’t-they romance, antagonists, family tensions, the plot even makes use of a ‘Cool Runnings’ moment, but undermined a little by an overlong pause to facilitate an extra contest-accurate piece of the plot. Familiarity with these elements may help the international, okay, American audience for this film who may be wholly unfamiliar with the titular contest itself.
Director David Dobkin is probably best known for ‘Wedding Crashers’ and ‘Shanghai Knights’, but he also directed ‘The Judge’ which didn’t impress me much at all. I watched an hour-long interview with him discussing making this film in great detail and he impressed me with his attitude to making a comedy, not just going for the laughs without having a strong story and characters in place. This helped me to better understand why he likely struggled to cut the running time any shorter as the pre-production resulted in loads of enjoyable faux-Eurovision performances and well-developed characters brought to screen by acclaimed actors.
When this year’s contest was cancelled, the film’s release alongside it was also delayed, that makes little sense to me, it seems like it would’ve been a better idea to hold to the date and this could’ve been a consolation prize of sorts for those who enjoy the contest each year. The decision may have been partly due to post-production delays, but also I wouldn’t be surprised if the head of Eurovision, who is credited as a producer, didn’t have a bit of a say in this too. His involvement goes a long way to explaining why the film is so careful to avoid making fun of the contest or those who love it or are involved in it, but it does have fun with them, winning them over with a bunch of cameos that will go over the heads of anyone who hasn’t followed the contest for years. As a casual watcher in the UK, I spotted a few that were recognisable but I’m aware there were many more, something that the biggest fans of Eurovision will adore.
Generally, I’m a fan of Will Ferrell’s comedies, though a few of his recent efforts have either underwhelmed me or not even appealed enough for me to even bother watching them. He’s doing his ‘usual’ thing here but as he’s written it with himself in mind and tailored the character and story to work with what he’s considered good at, it works perfectly well, though his character and performance are completely outshone by his co-star Rachel McAdams who is the film’s biggest asset. Her character Sigrit is the more grounded of the two, and McAdams deftly realises the character with great amounts of nuance and warmth. Partnered together they strongly lead a cast that also has memorable turns from Pierce Brosnan and Dan Stevens who could steal their respective scenes and run away with things just for laughs, instead, they add to their b-plots quite nicely. The cast is rounded out by lots of actors from Scandanavia and the Eurozone, which helps a lot with convincing accents.
The key to the success of any film with a central plot about musicians and a music contest, is always going to be the songs. This film is full of original songs that have been written and produced by Savan Kotecha whose past work includes such hits as One Direction’s ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ and The Weeknd’s ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ as well as a bunch of huge songs for Ariana Grande. The original songs are not just written for comedy or Eurovision campiness, they’ve been produced to be convincingly good songs. Also, there’s a medley of well-know pop songs at a party that’s a page ripped right out of the ‘Pitch Perfect’ playbook, that has the same impact as one of their ‘Riff-Offs’.
The conclusion, while predictable and well within the formula, is so effective in bringing together the elements of the film, character, story, and music, that I genuinely cried. It surprised me too. The show-stopping song is so good it had to be nominated for the Academy Award for ‘Original Song’, it was clearly one of the 5 best original songs in films this past year, though the other nominees are strong too.
Running at 2 hours and 3 minutes it’s far too long. For comparison, ‘Blades of Glory’ is 93 minutes long, ‘Step Brothers’ is 98mins, ‘The Other Guys’ is 107mins, all of which managed to set up Ferrell duos and were hugely successful in telling their stories. Apparently, an earlier assembly cut when being edited was even longer. To be fair, I think this is largely Eurovision’s fault, and the fact that the film (literally) goes out of its way to be accurate in depicting the competition format with its stages. If it was still just a one night contest the film could’ve been cut down significantly though a piece of the narrative would need to be reworked, but as it stands there are a few ideas that feel like they’re recycled at each stage of the competition so that the resolution can be saved for the finale. It makes sense but the repetition causes the film to drag a little. One other piece that could’ve gone is the reappearance of Demi Lovato’s character, the brief latter scenes with her add absolutely nothing to the film and literally stop it in its tracks at points to no apparent point. It would trim only a minute off but I think that would’ve been a cut worth making.
If they’d managed to cut this film down to 100 minutes it would be even more solid and there would be little to say against it, trimming out the bits that drag or are short on laughs. From those that I’ve seen it’s one of Will Ferrell’s best in a while and definitely one of the best comedies Netflix have produced, beating their slew of Happy Gilmore productions with ease. I’m not sure it’ll get the same level of fandom as some of Ferrell’s best creations, but the music alone may help to give this film more longevity than the mixed reviews might suggest, especially if it does get the Awards nominations it so clearly deserves.
‘Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga’ is streaming on Netflix and is worth checking out if you’re a fan of either the contest or Will Ferrell, it’s not as snappy as it should be but there’s enough humour and a great deal of heart to make it worthwhile as well as an excellent finale that makes the prolonged wait worth it. Rightly nominated for ‘Best Original SOng’ at the Oscars, it has an outside chance of winning, being as it is a comedy, but I wouldn’t rule it out.