For 64 years, the Eurovision Song Contest has been an epic annual international extravaganza, pulling together 42 nations to celebrate their cultures and creativity through a music competition that is full of fashion, flare, and fabulous camp. For Europe, it’s an institution, with 182 million viewers tuning in just last year. For Americans, it’s largely unknown, but not for long. Will Ferrell and company have come to share the wonders and weirdness of this astonishing event with Netflix’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. In a year when the actual event was cancelled because of the pandemic, this rom-com musical has landed to share its pleasures all the same.
Written by Will Ferrell and Andrew Steele, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga centers on a scrappy band out of Iceland called Fire Saga. As children, Lars (Will Ferrell) and Sigrit (Rachel McAdams) heard the siren song of Eurovision come calling when ABBA stomped the stage with “Waterloo.” While the grown-ups of this remote fishing village laughed at the kids’ carefree dancing to the disco banger, Lars and Sigrit were bonded for life through music. He became determined to win Eurovision and thereby prove his worth to his scowling fisherman father (Pierce Brosnan). Sigrit became determined to win Lars’ heart. But when extraordinary circumstances pitch them into the Eurovision semi-finals, their relationship is threatened by sabotage, jealousy, and a sexy Russian crooner played a sultry and scene-stealing Dan Stevens.
Those unfamiliar with Eurovision need not worry about getting lost. Crucial details are peppered into the dialogue about trends, disqualifications, and quirks that make the competition thread easy to follow. Plus, there are plenty of dick jokes and wild slapstick that doesn’t need any foreknowledge to appreciate. Basically, if you enjoy Ferrell’s brand of goofy gags and outlandish characters, you’ll probably enjoy Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga whether or not you’ve ever seen an actual Eurovision Song Contest. However, newbs will miss out on the wealth of inside jokes and clever parodies that make this movie a surprisingly sincere tribute to this song contest.
Director David Dobkin orchestrates an incredibly ambitious production, offering panoply of musical performances from acts that ape Eurovision contenders of the past. The soundtrack boasts screaming metal, bubbly pop, playful rock, hokey hip hop, a swaggering power ballad, and beautiful belter that could give the Frozen hits a run for their money. Around these swirl pyrotechnics, colorful projections, bizarre costumes, insanely suggestive dance routines, and stage props that seem plucked from the mind of a maniac. Basically, it’s all the stuff Eurovision viewers giddily cheer for year after year.
Upon hearing an American comedian was going to make a Eurovision movie, the world may have been rightfully dubious. But this is no Ugly American spin (in fact, Ugly Americans get roasted in a recurring bit with bite). Ferrell and his team clearly love Eurovision for all it is. Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga celebrates the extravagance of the event through costumes, stage productions, and thoughtful casting of its fictional contenders. It cheers the inherent quirkiness of the event, carefully capturing the aching earnestness to look cool, which often veers into comically corny. And as a special gift to those aching over Eurovision’s cancellation, there are a slew of cameos that will make you stand up and cheer. Sincerely, I cried with delight during the stupendous “song-along.”
Then, through all this earnest homage to Eurovision, Ferrell, Steele, and Dobkin weave a solidly enchanting love story. You might roll your eyes at the idea of The Notebook‘s gorgeous ingénue desperately wooing the star of Anchorman. But Ferrell is aware of the optics. Characters throughout the film chide Sigrit that she can do better, not only in her goals for a romantic partner but also in a musical one. Enter Alexander Lemtov (Stevens) who wields his smoldering smile like a saber and has never met a shirt that buttoned up over his muscular chest. He seems at first a double-threat, a romantic rival for Lars as well as a big star whose interest in Sigrit’s voice could sweep her away into a life of luxury, pet tigers, and personal submersibles. However, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga offers an unexpected and thrilling twist on what could be a clichéd antagonist, allowing audiences to focus less on lust and more on what Sigrit really wants.
McAdams delivers a deeply grounded yearning in Sigrit that makes the love story work no matter how wacky Ferrell’s Lars flails. The look in her eyes allows us to see him as she does, which is as a dreamer who refuses to be beaten down by a world that repeatedly calls him a loser. For his part, Ferrell leans into buffoonery, which serves the film well as Lars’s arc is about the dangers of arrogance and blind ambition. McAdams proves his perfect scene partner for the comedy bits, whether she’s considering rocking a “classic” camel-toe crotch or lamenting the overzealous efforts of elves. Their chemistry in the comedy sells the love story, showing how these two share something that no sexy shirtless singing seducer could take away.
Dobkin stacks his cast with talent; the bit players are unknown stateside but all the same slay as furious locals, jaunty Eurovision execs, and colorful contestants. What We Do In Shadows‘ Natasia Demetriou pops up as an intense choreographer, delivering a caustic comic edge that is as cutting as it is hilarious. Brosnan brings a growling gravitas that proves a terrific foil to Ferrell’s silliness, and UK talk show host Graham Norton swings in for a cameo that’s full of expertly thrown shade. But the best supporting player here, hands down, is Stevens, who could be an Oscar contender if the Academy didn’t have a stick up its ass about recognizing comedies.
As Alexander, the British actor who once seemed the perfect gentleman in Downton Abbey cuts loose, living for the fantasy of being a Russian king of pop. The physicality that was electrically macho and intimidating in The Guest is softened here, carrying no threat — just temptation. His every move feels like a poetic gesture intended to inspire a crush or sex dream. It’s the kind of frenzied flirtations that has made Jeff Goldblum a sex symbol for decades. Then into that, Stevens folds a knowing wink, a sense that Alexander is in on the joke and laughing louder than the rest. In private moments, his bombast is slightly toned down, tipping to a secret self he’s hesitant to reveal. Then, onstage he cranks all this charisma and oozing sexuality to 11. While Stevens (and McAdams and others) lip-sync their big numbers, these are embraced as moments of epic glory. In the tradition of RuPaul’s Drag Race, they lip-sync as if their lives and legacies depend on them, delivering performances that are an explosion of energy, life, and love.
Typically, for a review, I watch a film once. Twice if I’m lucky. I’ve watched Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga three times. Not because I had to, but because–like ABBA for Fire Saga–the siren song of it keeps calling me back. There are so many options to watch right now, but I wanted to keep diving back into this outrageous and eager rom-com musical that radiates with pure joy. The jokes range from silly to sly. The music runs from goofy to glorious. The performances are hysterically funny, yet poignant when it counts. Then, there’s that extra something else, an exhilaration and mirth so radiant that it is contagious. This film isn’t just fun and funny and feel-good, it’s hopeful, invigorating, and healing.
Some will scoff at my score. Some might snark that a comedy can’t be perfect. But this one is.