For the first time since 1956, the Eurovision Song Contest will not take place, thanks to covid-19. Originally founded to promote a sense of unity among the continent following World War II, the annual song competition asks 46 European countries to put up individual acts to represent their nation with an original song. A winner is decided after all nations vote, and no nation can vote for itself. Naturally, that means mostly nothing to Americans. The Voice, American Idol, The Masked Singer, and The X Factor are the only singing competitions that can hold our national attention; and when it comes to fictional work, movies like Glee and Pitch Perfect seem to scratch the itch. But for Europeans, Eurovision is a tradition that builds camaraderie and friendly competition the same way the World Cup does, with one additional element: it’s absolutely batshit.
Costumes are extravagant. Song selections traverse genre. Performers are flamboyant. And because it is so over the top, it only makes sense that Eurovision would eventually inspire its own film parody. Enter Netflix, and Will Ferrell, and Rachel McAdams in the comedy Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, a silly, sincere romp that is mostly a fun celebration of the six-decades long competition, if not a perfect satire.
The story follows Lars Erickssong (Will Ferrell) and Sigrit Ericksdottir (Rachel McAdams), two musicians from the tiny town of Húsavík, Iceland who, ever since watching ABBA win the contest with “Waterloo” in 1974, have become obsessed with representing their own Scandinavian country in the esteemed competition, and winning. Or so it is the motivation for Erickssong—Ericksdottir loves to sing, but she also loves Erickssong, setting the film up for a Fleetwood Mac-esque music story. Their band, Fire Saga, spends most of its time playing fictional folk-songs (“Ja Ja Ding Dong”) for fishermen at a local pub as Erickssong’s father, Erick Erickssong (Pierce Brosnan), looks on in disappointment. After being randomly selected to compete in Iceland’s own song contest, meant to determine who will continue on to Eurovision, Fire Saga flops—but ends up entering the main competition with their electrifying euro-pop ballad, “Double Trouble,” after a disaster claims the lives of the rest of their competition (including a very funny Demi Lovato as the dreamy soloist Katiana).
It’s a fun, goofy tale, but one that occasionally sacrifices humor for sincerity in moments where a joke would’ve landed more punch. (If it did, I’d put Eurovision Song Contest up there in the same musical canon as POPSTAR: Never Stop Never Stopping.) The best bits are mostly spoiled in the trailer, and what remains is a feel-good tale of learning to love your hometown and those who’ve always supported you with humor scattered throughout. That doesn’t mean Eurovision Song Contest is unfunny or poorly researched. The references it does make are immaculate: I was delighted to see U.K. host Graham Norton featured as a commentator, and the performers from different countries actually reflect those countries’ interests. I was particularly fond of Belarus’ Evanescence-like metal-pop tune, and the inclusion of Eurovision stars from the past, like Israel’s Netta, who won in 2018 with her original “Toy,” Conchita Wurst, Austria’s glorious, glamorous bearded drag queen who took home the title in 2014. At one point, Ferrell performs inside a giant hamster wheel, a direct nod to Ukrainian singer Mariya Yaremchuk’s 2014 performance. And even though the movie is about a singing competition, it is not bogged down with Pitch Perfect-style song exposition, which makes for an enjoyable watch. The original songs that do appear have real hooks and an endearing, self-aware irony—no doubt the result of music producer and Max Martin protégé Savan Kotecha, who oversaw the sounds of the film.
Much like figure skating (Blades of Glory), NASCAR (Talladega Nights), basketball (Semi-Pro), and most sports, really, the competitive and self-serious nature of Eurovision made it ripe for a Will Ferrell comedy. But unlike those 2000s titles, many of which found humor in the popular gay panic jokes of the time, Eurovision Song Contest’s comedy is much more delicate in its delivery. Ferrell’s performances only feel dated when the script is, and here, he shines as an earnest, lovable oaf with a penchant for the type of spectacle that usually fails him, instead of an earnest, lovable oaf doomed by his macho delusion, as his male characters in the past tended to be. The only truly off-color joke may be the reoccurring one that Ferrell and McAdams’s characters are siblings instead of romantic interests (if only they included a mention of the app in Iceland that helps residents determine if they are about to sleep with their cousin—the population is so low, there is some danger), or that Europeans don’t want Americans around, but those are both seeded in some reality. They hurt and they’re true.
Still, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga doesn’t widen its scope to fully embrace the world of Eurovision other than in small parts, which is why it’s much more of a funny movie with both forgettable and excellent moments instead of brilliant satire. I would watch Ferrell and McAdams as a surprising Icelandic couple even outside of the world of euro-pop, which probably means that their relationship to the competition—that insatiable desire to win—was lost early on. But I don’t fault the movie for that. It’s still a fun ride.