In the face of coronavirus cancellation – Eurovision has had one of its best years yet

No show? No problem – a Netflix movie and better-than-expected virtual contest have given Europop fans something to sing about

It was 1999 when Will Ferrell first bore witness to the Eurovision Song Contest, and from then it seemed just a matter of time before his love for it would manifest on screen. An annual celebration of musical multiculturalism with dry ice and ambitious choreography, Eurovision was born for parody, a delicious offering of low-hanging fruit for a comedian just like Ferrell, whose brand of satire is far more performative than it is subtle.

Intrigued by its eccentricity, Ferrell has been spotted at the competition over the years since, showing up unexpectedly at rehearsals and in 2014 travelling to Copenhagen to watch the finals.

Eurovision Song Contest
Rachel McAdams and Will Ferrell perform during ‘Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga’. Credit: Netflix

Now, some 20 years after he first discovered the musical extravaganza, his interpretation of the contest has launched on Netflix, a musical-comedy about Icelandic underdogs Lars and Sigrit (Ferrell and Rachel McAdams) and their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform at the event and win the respect of their townsfolk (namely Lars’ father, an impressively beardy Pierce Brosnan).

Co-writing the film and releasing it through his production company Gary Sanchez Productions, Ferrell mostly captures the essence of Eurovision effectively, with its proud showmanship and slightly off-kilter, when-translated-into-English lyrics (“Volcanic protector man/A timeless hero must love too”), while Dan Stevens’ sexually ambiguous Russian contestant with bleached, blown-out hair embodies its artificial glamour.

Pierce Brosnan
Pierce Brosnan plays Will Ferrell’s beardy on-screen father in ‘Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga’. Credit: Netflix

Yet whether intended this way or not, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga doesn’t feel like a fully-fledged parody. There’s some slapstick and a few swipes at global relations (Stevens makes an aside about everyone hating England), but there’s also an unexpected air of romanticism to the film. A scene in which Lars and Sigrit approach the stage to rehearse for the Eurovision semi-finals is reminiscent of a music biopic with all its aspirational implications. Ariana Grande’s go-to songwriter Savan Kotecha was even hired to oversee the film’s music, and helped to compile original songs for the show’s competitors. The craft of the contest itself is actually commendable, and framed less as a comedic spectacle and more a voyage of self discovery with a few physical gags thrown in.

In the past, this sentimental treatment could be attributed to an outsider’s view of the contest which has somehow sidestepped the years of unsubtle political rifts and cultural appropriation, but Ferrell seems to have seen something in the contest that kept bringing it back to him, and this year the contest feels closer to that vision than ever; an interesting development seeing as there hasn’t actually been a contest.

Eurovision
‘Eurovision: Shine A Light’ took the place of the cancelled song contest. Credit: BBC

In March, when COVID-19 forced Eurovision to be cancelled for the first time in 64 years (the Rotterdam venue due to host the contest is now a COVID-19 emergency hospital), the organisers took the festivities online, and to everyone’s surprise the result was a life-affirming, much-needed success.

Removing the competitive element from the event altogether, Eurovision instead presented all 41 songs in a special two-part showcase, with bonus online content from the contestants and social media personalities, and a platform for fans to share their appreciation of their favourite entries in the form of dance videos. To a cynic this may sound like hell on earth, but astonishingly the format worked, thanks largely to Iceland’s hopelessly catchy, TikTok-friendly hit ‘Think About Things’, which you may have missed in its original form, but no doubt will have caught replicated by a Malaysian family when their quarantined rendition went viral.

In the UK, folks were encouraged to vote for their favourite Eurovision winner of all time for its own one-off TV special. The show – hosted by Graham Norton – voted ABBA’s ‘Waterloo’ as the winner and tapped into an unexpected sense of nostalgia for some. “I have found this strangely emotional, this whole evening,” Norton confessed afterwards.

It seems that Eurovision’s pivot to online transported it past the ironic Saturday night drinking parties and made it an intergenerational, worldwide celebration from the confines of lockdown. This year’s offering may be merely a capsule episode in the contest’s expansive lifetime, with festivities planning to resume back in Rotterdam in 2021 – and a handful of nations already nominating their acts from this year to return (UK artist James Newman is yet to be confirmed).

However, the stripped-back version, which largely managed to avoid political statements or the unsubtle allegiances emphasised in the voting process, showed a side of the contest that feels more closely aligned with Ferrell’s idealism. The contestants may have missed out on a shot at glory this year (with the exception of ‘Think About Things’ performer Daði Freyr), but it’s reminded audiences that this annual tradition – no matter how outrageous or corny – has been embedded in our culture for generations, and remains just as powerful today.

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