Whatever else there is to say about Will Ferrell’s latest project, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, it’s a striking sign of how much television has changed in so short a time.
Here we have an American comedian, best known for his impersonations or archetypal creations of uniquely American characters — Harry Caray, Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby, Dubya — playing an Icelandic fisherman’s son who dreams about winning the Eurovision Song Contest, a televised competition in which Americans do not compete. Will Ferrell said he had this idea back in the 1990s, when he was overseas and saw Eurovision for the first time. But who in his right mind would make that movie back then?
Today it makes perfect sense. Netflix, the studio-slash-Internet-behemoth behind Eurovision, is in 190 countries. It has obliterated the walls that kept TV shows from crossing borders. It acquires shows from Venezuela and Northern Ireland and New Zealand, then puts them on in the countries where it thinks they’ll find an audience. This movie is clearly going to have a market in at least 53 countries — the 52 that compete in Eurovision, and the one that seemingly can’t have too many Will Ferrell movies.
Eurovision started in the 1950s as a way of crossing borders between nations, in the spirit of the European Community, or as we know it today, the EU. Eurovision is rightly called “the singing Olympics,” with national competitions leading to a global stage from a host country and an estimated worldwide audience of 200 million.
Until a few years ago it was almost impossible to watch Eurovision here. By the time YouTube came along, we already had our own singing competitions. I’m not the best judge of how accurate a spoof this is, but I can say that Eurovision is a very Will Ferrell movie, albeit with a foreign accent (that he drops at least once).
Ferrell plays a characteristically dopey, upbeat, overly confident underachiever — Lars Erickssong, who lives with his father Erick (Pierce Brosnan) in a remote fishing village in Iceland. Since he saw ABBA win Eurovision in 1974 (which they did, performing “Waterloo”), Lars has made it his life’s goal to do the same.
Supporting him in this seemingly futile quest is his equally cheerful, confident, somewhat smarter lifelong friend Sigrit, played by Canada’s sweetheart, Rachel McAdams, whom I’ve loved since Slings and Arrows, speaking of shows that don’t cross borders. Through a series of improbable movie-comedy events, they make it all the way to the Eurovision finals in Edinburgh, Scotland. One thing this movie has is great scenery.
Eurovision the movie is a co-production with EBU, the producer of the actual Eurovision competition, so you know going in that it’s not about to burn any bridges. The best analogy I can make for American readers is the movie Major League, which clearly had some buy-in from MLB but was cartoonish enough that no one would think the events in the clubhouse were based on real life. In the movie, the Eurovision finals are announced by Graham Norton, who is actually Britain’s voice of the Eurovision telecast — not unlike Bob Uecker calling the Indians games in Major League.
Also like Major League, the movie pits a seemingly inept team — Lars and Sigrit, aka Fire Saga — against evil management, i.e., the Icelandic national bank, which does not want the country to ever win Eurovision because then Iceland would have to host Eurovision, at considerable expense. (True fact: Luxembourg once won the Eurovision contest two years in a row, and had to beg another country to host the second year.)
If you’re a Will Ferrell fan, you will watch this movie. Demi Lovato has a rather unsettling role that I suspect people will be talking about afterward. I won’t say that a couple of running jokes weren’t done to death — Lars’ hatred of American tourists comes to mind — but I enjoyed it, and there were a couple of gags that made me howl. (One involves an outhouse, and is funny in 190 countries.)
How this will be received in Europe is anyone’s guess, because this is about as much a parody of Eurovision as Talladega Nights is a parody of NASCAR. Comedy is notoriously fragile and does not ship well over long distances, which is how we got two Offices and Norman Lear versions of hit Britcoms and a German knockoff of Letterman. If anyone can make comedy work on a Netflix scale, you’d think it would be Will Ferrell. The director of Eurovision, David Dobkin, also directed Ferrell in Wedding Crashers, and the humor here is similarly, um, accessible. Casting Pierce Brosnan was a nice touch. The way COVID-19 is clearing out the release calendar, this may wind up being the highlight of the summer movie season.
One thing is certain: For the first time in 65 years there will be no Eurovision Song Contest, which means Will Ferrell in a white leotard performing “Double Trouble” is as close as Eurovision fans are going to get.
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga drops on Netflix on June 26th.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.