Home > Reviews > EUROVISION SONG CONTEST: THE STORY OF FIRE SAGA – Atli Örvarsson

EUROVISION SONG CONTEST: THE STORY OF FIRE SAGA – Atli Örvarsson

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

So, I have something of a confession to make. I love the Eurovision Song Contest. For those who don’t know what this is – most of whom will be American – it is an annual music contest/festival in which all the countries of Europe (plus a few occasional non-European guests) put forward a song to represent their nation, and then after a huge live TV music extravaganza lasting several hours, all the competing nations vote for a winner. This has happened every year since 1956, and it’s fantastic. It’s a celebration of music and culture, yes, but it’s also a celebration of kitsch, where the wild and the wacky and the downright bizarre compete on equal terms with genuine musical excellence in the service of pan-continental friendship. Lots of famous faces have competed in the competition – ABBA famously won for Sweden in 1974, beating Olivia Newton-John. Céline Dion won singing for Switzerland in 1988. And over the years several artists cut their teeth on the show as youngsters, many of whom may be famous to those outside the Euro-bubble, including Cliff Richard, Nana Mouskouri, Matt Monro, Sandie Shaw, Lulu, Dana, Julio Iglesias, Brotherhood of Man, Bucks Fizz, Ofra Haza, and Katrina and the Waves.

Loving the Eurovision Song Contest is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, Eurovision is often looked down upon by purists as being nothing more than tackiness and bad taste. And, to be fair, it is often exceptionally cheesy – gaudy outfits, unsophisticated music, banal lyrics, and so on. These criticisms are not without a basis in reality. But, speaking personally, those things are part of *why* I love Eurovision so much, which is something I can’t explain via any reasonable logic. For me, it’s also a fascinating glimpse into the musical tastes of different cultures. For example: the first Eurovision I remember watching closely was the one in 1989, which was won by the Yugoslav classic rock act Riva. That year alone we had a Danish big band swing number (“Vi Maler Byen Rød” by Birthe Kjær), an Italian-inspired romantic ballad sung in Finnish (“La Dolce Vita” by Anneli Saaristo), a Portuguese song espousing colonialism (“Conquistador” by Da Vinci), a completely inappropriate love song by an 11-year old French girl (“J’ai Volé la Vie” by Nathalie Pâque), and various assorted ballads and rock songs in Italian and Norwegian and Swedish and German. That year’s contest also kick-started my love of languages – I taught myself how to sing all the songs phonetically – and exposed me to more unconventional musical diversity than I ever had in my life before. I was hooked.

This new film, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, is a humorous and good-hearted look at this entire concept. The film is directed by David Dobkin and stars Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as Lars Ericksson and his best friend, Sigrit Ericksdóttir, who hail from a small town on the remote north coast of Iceland. Having been inspired by Abba’s success at Eurovision, they formed their own band – Fire Saga – with the single aim of representing Iceland in the competition. Despite the disapproval of Lars’s widowed father Erick (Pierce Brosnan), Fire Saga repeatedly try to win Iceland’s qualifying competition, Söngvakeppnin, but suffer setback after setback. However, a series of bizarre occurrences result in Fire Saga being chosen to represent Iceland at an upcoming competition in Edinburgh; as such, Lars and Sigrit venture out into the world for the first time, with cheerfully naïve expectations, but soon find themselves suffering various mishaps and temptations which threaten to drive them apart – not least of which are the respective attentions of Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens), a flamboyant singer representing Russia, and Mita Xenakis (Melissanthi Mahut), a sexy and seductive Greek contestant. It premiered on Netflix in 2020 to generally favorable reviews.

As one would expect, songs play a massive part of Eurovision, and as such a number of original songs were commissioned by the film’s supervising music producer, Savan Kotecha, to be performed by Fire Saga and several of the other in-movie competitors. What’s so great about these songs is that, without exception, they could all be genuine Eurovision songs, rather than parody-homages. Kotecha and his songwriters clearly did their research to capture the tone and spirit of the competition’s most famous and popular entries, and between then came up with half a dozen knockout pieces which both pay appropriate respect to the competition itself, and are (in my opinion) genuinely good songs in their own right.

The four songs which will likely remain longest in the memory are the ones written for Fire Saga. All of Fire Saga’s vocals are provided by actors Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams, in collaboration with Swedish singer Molly Sandén, whose voice was blended with McAdams’s to create Sigrit’s final sound. “Double Trouble” was written by Kotecha with Arnþór Birgisson and Rami Yacoub, and is Fire Saga’s actual Eurovision entry; it’s a fun, upbeat disco track that starts with a haunting Loreena McKennit-style Celtic lilt, but quickly picks up a more driving beat. It’s got such a wonderfully stereotypical Europop sound, high energy and with a catchy, earworm chorus. “Volcano Man,” written by Gustaf Holter and Christian Persson, is an unashamedly over-the-top celebration of Viking heritage featuring a surprisingly lyrical introduction (beautiful McAdams vocals, Ferrell breathing rhythmically), but which quickly becomes an effortlessly cheesy dance music anthem. The video also has to be seen to be believed.

“Jaja Ding Dong,” which was also written by Holter and Persson, is a fantastic parody of German schlager music, a drinking song with a polka beat, a prominent accordion, and lyrics that used barely disguised double-entendres to talk about sex. The chorus – “ja ja ding dong, my love for you is growing wide and long” – is ridiculously catchy, and best of all it pays loving tribute to all those nonsensical party songs which dominated Eurovision in the late 1970s and early 80s – “Ding-a-Dong” by Teach-In from 1975, “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” by Izhar Cohen and the Alphabeta from 1978, “Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley” by Herreys from 1984, and so on. This song is the focus of the film’s running joke, in which this is the only song anyone ever wants Fire Saga to play, and as such they are sick of it. I can’t blame them, though… I want them to keep playing “Jaja Ding Dong” too!

The best of the four is undoubtedly “Húsavík,” which was written by Kotecha with Rickard Göransson. This is the song that Sigrit writes over the course of the film, as her relationship with Erick deteriorates, and she starts questioning her place in the world, and looking to her future. Eventually, the song turns out to be a love letter both to Erick and her hometown (“where the mountains sing through the screams of seagulls,” and so on). Fire Saga’s performance of the song is the climax of the film; it’s a beautifully intimate song, which switches from English to Icelandic and back again, has a sweeping and moving orchestral backing, and finishes with a glass-shattering ‘speorgnote’ that ends the movie on an emotional high. If this song doesn’t get an Oscar nomination (whenever the next Academy Awards end up being held), we riot. I’m completely serious – it plays an integral part of the film progressing the plot, and it’s genuinely great both musically and lyrically.

Many of the other songs are performed on-screen as part of the film’s contest. My favorites include “Lion of Love,” which is performed by Erik Mjönes as Alexander Lemtov with ballsy, operatic masculinity, backed by flamenco guitars, disco beats, and absolutely no barely-disguised homoeroticism whatsoever. “Come and Play (Masquerade)” is performed by Petra Nielsen as Mita Xenakis, the ridiculously sultry Greek seductress, who uses a touch of the moulin rouge and a hint of the burlesque to tempt her ‘victims’ into her web of desire. “Running with the Wolves,” performed on-screen by the fictional band Moon Fang, is a wonderful homage to Lordi, who won the real contest for Finland in 2006 with the song “Hard Rock Hallelujah” while dressed as masked demon monsters from hell. Finally, “In the Mirror” is performed by pop star Demi Lovato in-character as Katiana Lindsdóttir, whose trip to Eurovision is ended in an untimely manner by an exploding yacht; her song is a completely straight-faced, un-ironic power ballad which sounds like it could be a genuine contemporary chart hit.

Also included on the soundtrack are the songs “Amar Pelos Dois,” which won the real contest for Portugal in 2017 and is performed on-screen by the actual artist, Salvador Sobral, as a street busker; a version of “Happy,” Pharrell Williams’s Oscar-nominated song from Despicable Me 3; and a ‘Eurovision Song-A-Long’ performed by the cast as part of a party scene. Many of the most recent real Eurovision winners have vocal cameos during this song, and appear briefly in the film, while the song itself circulates between versions of Abba’s ‘Waterloo,’ the Madonna song ‘Ray of Light,’ ‘I Gotta Feeling’ by the Black Eyed Peas, the Cher song ‘Believe,’ and the French language song “Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi,” which Céline Dion sung when she won in 1988.

Tacked on at the end, almost as an afterthought, is a 6-minute “Eurovision Suite” of the score by composer Atli Örvarsson. I’m very happy that the producers got an Icelandic native to score it – Örvarsson hails from the city of Akureyri, which is only an hour from Húsavík – as it gives the whole thing a sense of authenticity. He recorded the score at Menningarhúsið Hof, a state-of-the-art recording facility in Akureyri, with local Icelandic musicians, and it’s really appealing. The suite circles through several recurring themes, including themes which appear to represent the relationship between Erick and Sigrit, and the city of Húsavík itself. It comprises a string orchestra backed by guitar, piano, accordion, drums, and bass, and is playful and amiable but also quite emotional in the way it gently evokes the setting, and the protagonists’ affection for it. It’s not comedic, per se, but there is a lightness and a sense of whimsy to the whole thing that is lovely. The theme that starts at 1:05 is probably my favorite – that piano line is effortlessly charming – and when it becomes livelier after the 2:00 mark, the effect is just delightful. The final minute of the score is celebratory and lively, with prominent percussion, hand-claps, and more noticeable brass, and it ends the suite on a buoyant high. The whole thing sounds like upbeat Zimmer crossed with upbeat Delerue crossed with Anne Dudley’s Oscar-winning score for The Full Monty, and I wish there was more of it on the album.

As you can tell, I loved every part of this project. As I mentioned, as a longstanding Eurovision fan, it appeals directly to my sensibility, working on multiple levels as both a parody and an homage. It hits all the marks, capturing both the kitschy overkill and the un-ironic sincerity of the entire experience, and manages to somehow pull off a remarkable feat by introducing several genuinely excellent songs into the Eurovision pantheon, notably the superb “Húsavík”. The high quality of Örvarsson’s original score is the cherry on top of an already delicious cake; this is outstanding stuff all round. The British jury awards Iceland douze points. Now, play Jaja Ding Dong!

Buy the Eurovision Song Contest soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Double Trouble (Tiësto’s Euro 90s Tribute Remix) (written by Arnþór Birgisson, Rami Yacoub, and Savan Kotecha, performed by Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams, and Molly Sandén as ‘Fire Saga’) (2:28)
  • Lion of Love (written by Rami Yacoub, Savan Kotecha, and Johan Carlsson, performed by Erik Mjönes as ‘Alexander Lemtov’) (2:47)
  • Coolin’ with Da Homies (written by Savan Kotecha and Rami Yacoub, performed by Savan Kotecha as ‘Johnny John John’) (1:26)
  • Volcano Man (written by Gustaf Holter and Christian Persson, performed by Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams, and Molly Sandén as ‘Fire Saga’) (1:21)
  • Jaja Ding Dong (written by Gustaf Holter and Christian Persson performed by Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams, and Molly Sandén as ‘Fire Saga’) (1:37)
  • In the Mirror (written by Jörgn Elofsson, performed by Demi Lovato as ‘Katiana Lindsdóttir’) (2:48)
  • Happy (written by Pharrell Williams, performed by Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams, and Molly Sandén as ‘Fire Saga’) (1:26)
  • Eurovision Song-A-Long (performed by Cast) (3:18)
  • Running with the Wolves (written by Andreas Carlsson, Andreas Öberg, and Christoffer Lauridsen, performed by Courtney Jenaé and Adam Grahn as ‘Moon Fang’`) (1:10)
  • Fool Moon (written by Jake Gosling, Laura Hayden, and Sam Monaghan, performed by Anteros as ‘Wonderfour’) (3:26)
  • Hit My Itch (written by Chris Wagner, Danny Pinnella, and Ric Markmann, performed by Antonio Sol, David Loucks, Taylor Lindersmith, and Nicole Leonti as ‘Dalibor Jinsky’) (2:04)
  • Come and Play (Masquerade) (written by Thomas Gustafsson, performed by Petra Nielsen as ‘Mita Xenakis’) (3:08)
  • Amar Pelos Dois (written by Luísa Sobral, performed by Salvador Sobral) (3:05)
  • Húsavík (written by Rickard Göransson and Savan Kotecha, performed by Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams, and Molly Sandén as ‘Fire Saga’) (3:22)
  • Double Trouble (Film Version) (written by Arnþór Birgisson, Rami Yacoub, and Savan Kotecha, performed by Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams, and Molly Sandén as ‘Fire Saga’) (2:54)
  • Eurovision Suite (6:19)

Running Time: 42 minutes 47 seconds

Arista/Sony Music Entertainment (2020)

Music composed and conducted by Atli Örvarsson. Orchestrations by Julian Kershaw. Featured musical soloists Kristjárn Edelstein, Einar Scheving and Pálmi Gunnarsson. Recorded and mixed by Steve McLaughlin. Edited by Jon Mooney, Peter Snell and Allegra de Souza. Score produced by Atli Örvarsson. Album produced by Savan Kotecha.

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