LONDON — The Eurovision Song Contest consistently manages to unite Europe and confuse America. This year’s installment of the music competition was canceled because of coronavirus, but you can get your annual fix of high camp via Netflix’s new film starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as two Eurovision hopefuls from a small town in Iceland.
“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” is a parody of the competition’s eccentric acts and obsessive fandom, but it’s nevertheless been praised for capturing the spirit that has helped make Eurovision one of the world’s biggest televised events (over 180 million people watched it live last year, according to the European Broadcasting Union, Eurovision’s organizer).
The film is also full of real-life Eurovision references, to reward the eagle-eyed fan. Below is a guide to the in-jokes.
(Warning: Spoilers follow.)
The Hamster Wheel
One of the most memorable scenes sees Lars (Ferrell) and Sigrit (McAdams) falling off the Eurovision stage after Sigrit’s scarf is caught in the giant hamster wheel that Lars is inside.
This is a homage to Ukraine’s 2014 Eurovision entry, which featured a dancer performing in a huge wheel as Mariya Yaremchuk sang in front. Unlike in “Fire Saga,” Ukraine’s performance went off without a hitch, and the act came in sixth, even returning as part of a comedy skit in the interval of the 2016 contest.
Since Eurovision is broadcast live, mistakes do happen. Dima Bilan, Russia’s entry in 2009, famously got his jacket tangled in the overhead wires that had allowed him to float down from the roof. And in 1999, Dana International tripped and fell onstage trying to deliver the trophy to that year’s winner.
Cameos From Winners
An avalanche of cameos by famous Eurovision performers appears in the film’s “song-along” sequence, featuring covers of songs by Celine Dion (who won the contest in 1988) and Madonna (who performed at the 2019 Eurovision), among others. The “song-along” includes some of the competition’s most well-known winners in the past decade, such as Conchita Wurst (the Austrian winner of Eurovision 2014), Loreen (the Swedish winner of Eurovision 2012), Alexander Rybak (the Norwegian winner in 2009), Jamala (the Ukrainian winner of Eurovision 2016) and Netta (Israel’s winning entry from Eurovision 2018).
The cameos appear thick and fast, so here they are in order: John Ludvik (Sweden’s 2019 entry), Anna Odobescu (Moldova’s 2019 entry), Bilal Hassani (France’s 2019 entry), Loreen, Jessy Matador (France’s 2010 entry), Rybak, Jamala, Elina Nechayeva (Estonia’s 2018 entry), Wurst and Netta.
Ridiculous, Yet Familiar, Entries
“Fire Saga” parodies many popular Eurovision musical genres. During the contest that chooses the Icelandic entry each year, we hear 21st Century Viking, which is similar in style to Denmark’s 2018 entry. Later, in the semifinal, there’s the group Moon Fang, who look very similar to Lordi, Finland’s heavy metal entry that won the competition in 2006.
Memorable and absurd staging is often used to help a Eurovision act stand out, especially given that during the final, viewers watch 26 entries in two hours. Austria used visual trickery in its 2015 entry to make it look like the singer’s piano was on fire, and the 2016 Belarusian entry featured a holographic wolf and video of a naked man howling at the moon.
One of the most memorable performances in the film is “Lion of Love” by Russia’s entry Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens). Stevens says that his character is loosely based on Philipp Kirkorov, Russia’s entry from 1995. The song also has striking similarities to the Romanian Eurovision entry from 2013. That entry, performed by Cezar, featured near-naked male dancers, a costume reminiscent of a vampire, operatic vocals with dubstep key-changes, and the singer rising from the stage as if he were the peak of a volcano.
Singing in Your Native Language
In the film, Sigrit wants to perform the duo’s song in their native Icelandic, rather than English, knowing it risks losing them votes. This is a dilemma many countries face. However, in last year’s competition, Hatari, an industrial techno band wearing B.D.S.M. attire, did perform in Icelandic and came in 10th, a very respectable result.
Other countries have gotten creative. In 1968, Spain won Eurovision with a mixture of Spanish lyrics and a refrain of “la” noises.
As the film depicts, Iceland has never won the competition. Ironically, its entry for 2020 (“Think About Things” by Dadi og Gagnamagnid) was a favorite to win before the competition was canceled. The song’s video, which features hypnotic dancing and green sweaters, has remained popular, and the president and first lady of Iceland were recently photographed wearing their own versions of the sweaters.
A Changing Host Country
Traditionally, the winning country hosts the following year’s competition. Lars and Sigrit head to Edinburgh to compete in that year’s contest.
Scotland hosting Eurovision does raise some questions. In last year’s contest, the United Kingdom came in last place in the Grand Final, having been awarded 16 points in total from its fellow competitors, compared to the 498 points collected by the Netherlands, who won.
The U.K.’s poor performance is referenced in the movie, with Lemtov saying the fictional British entry, Julia J, is “quite good, but everybody hates U.K., so zero points.” Does Scotland hosting suggest that, in the film’s universe, the U.K. miraculously triumphed the year before, or did Scotland win Eurovision as a newly independent country?
Another theory is that Edinburgh agreed to host the competition after the previous winner declined. This has happened, most recently with Israel declining to host the competition after winning in 1979. Australia, which has competed since 2015, is required to host the contest in Europe if it ever wins, so Edinburgh could be the proxy host for a prior Australian victory.
A Snarky British Host
Once the “Fire Saga” Eurovision competition gets underway, viewers are treated to sardonic commentary from Graham Norton, the chat-show host who has fronted Britain’s coverage since 2009.
For many British viewers, Norton’s commentary is the highlight of the whole contest. He opened last year’s competition by saying, “There’s hip-hop, there’s opera, there’s pop, there’s dirge.” When Spain’s 2018 entry ended with the performers in a romantic embrace, he joked, “I give it a month.”
“Fire Saga” includes many references to the contest’s complicated voting format. There are also references to bloc voting, a frequent accusation that countries give maximum points to their neighbors, regardless of the entry’s quality. In the film, Norway gives eight points to neighboring Sweden. In the real contests, Cyprus and Greece are notorious for giving each other the maximum 12 points.
And, of Course, Abba
If you want an introduction to Eurovision, look no further than Abba. The band won the competition for Sweden back in 1974 with “Waterloo,” which is referenced throughout the film.
A poll conducted by the BBC earlier this year named Abba’s “Waterloo” the best Eurovision entry of all time. Lars’s father, played by Pierce Brosnan, dismisses the song as nonsense, perhaps a tongue-in-cheek nod to the actor singing “Waterloo” in the closing credits of the film “Mamma Mia.”