Eurovision Song Contest: Will Gompertz reviews the new Netflix film ★★☆☆☆

Will Gompertz - Arts editor
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

You don't have to know loads about art to recognise a great piece when you see one. It hits you like a truck; like love-at-first sight. It doesn't occur often, but when it does, oh boy.

It happened to me a few years ago on one rainy afternoon when I'd ducked into a gallery to avoid a downpour. The place was showing a nine-channel video, which sounds as dreary as these things usually are, but, I reasoned, was probably marginally less awful than getting soaked. Anyway, the shower looked as though it was passing, I reckoned I could leg it after a couple of minutes. I set my expectations a notch or two below those of a tailor at a nudist camp, and entered the room in which the 52-minute multi-screen epic was being shown.

One hour later, the sun now shining, I was still standing in the middle of the gallery, surrounded by the nine huge video screens, growing increasingly impatient as I waited for the film to start all over again.

What I had just seen was wonderful: a romantic work of art with the spirit of a Brontë novel; made by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson and eight of his arty mates from Reykjavik. They were each stationed in a separate room of a down-at-heel mansion as they sang in sync a lament ("Once again I fall into my feminine ways") written by Ragnar's ex-wife, the poet Ásdis Sif Gunnarsdóttir.

If the work is ever installed near you, check it out (you can watch it on YouTube but it's not the same). The piece is called The Visitors, a homage to Abba's last studio album by an artist who credits the band as an influence.

He's not the only one.

The Icelandic artist, Ragnar Kjartansson said he was exploring a Chekhovian state of mind in The Visitors, which was shown at the Barbican in 2016
The Icelandic artist, Ragnar Kjartansson's "The Visitors"

The fictional pop duo Lars Erickssong (Will Ferrell) and Sigrit Ericksdottir (Rachel McAdams) are also fans, as you quickly find out in Netflix's spoof rom-com, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.

Lars and Sigrit go back a long way. We first meet them as young children in 1974, with Lars sitting despondently on the stairs of his home, mourning the recent death of his mother. His father (Pierce Brosnan) is drowning his sorrows in front of the TV while watching the Eurovision Song Contest with a room-full of friends. Abba come on and start singing Waterloo. Lars perks up no end and starts dancing in front of the telly, transfixed by the Swedish fab four. He declares right there and then that one day he will win the contest for Iceland. Nobody is impressed or cares very much, other than Sigrit.

Spool forward three decades to the small Icelandic town where Lars and Sigrit still live. By day he is a parking attendant, she, a primary school teacher. By night they are Fire Saga, one of the worst bands ever to set foot on a stage - and there have been some very bad bands stepping up over the years.

Abba's winning performance of Waterloo at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 made a lasting impression on the young Lars and Sigrit
Lars Erickssong (Will Ferrell) and Sigrit Ericksdottir (Rachel McAdams) long to be Iceland's Eurovision entry

The locals barely tolerate Lars and his immature dream of Eurovision fame, while being baffled by the much-smarter Sigrit's loyalty to him. They grudgingly allow Fire Saga to perform in the local pub but only as long as they stick to a strict one-song set-list consisting of Yah, Yah, Yah Ding Dong. This upsets Lars, who is keen to try out his latest material on them.

Suffice it to say that with a little help from the local elves, his childhood dream begins to come true and Fire Saga find themselves on a plane heading for the Eurovision Song Contest in Edinburgh (suggesting Britain won the year before, which, even in this Will Ferrell co-created fictional world, is stretching credibility somewhat).

The excited duo arrive in Edinburgh determined to achieve Eurovision glory and gain respect in Iceland

You can see why the film got made.

It has some tasty-looking ingredients such as Ferrell's track-record with spoof-comedies such as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Then there's the global popularity of the Eurovision Song Contest and its loyal audience of many millions who have missed out on their annual kitsch-fest fix due to the pandemic. Add to that the Mamma Mia! phenomenon: a tongue-in-cheek, Abba-themed comedy that so knowingly, and cleverly meta-mocked itself into being a multi-million-dollar box office smash hit. It trod a fine line and didn't misplace a step.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell in the centre) was ranked as one of the funniest films of all time
While Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again hit the right notes from self-parody to star casting

Unlike, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, which is misjudged and tedious. That thing about instinctively knowing a great work when you see one applies to the opposite end of the spectrum.

You don't need to be a cinephile to know this film is dud.

Mamma Mia! made you smile, The Story of Fire Saga makes you groan.

The script is more predictable than a Swiss watch, accents slip in and out like the signal on a pirate radio station, and Ferrell's Lars is not nearly loveable enough to save the picture. Lazy clichés and tired stereotypes abound, from the camp show-runner to American tourists only interested in finding the nearest Starbucks. Worse, the depiction of Icelanders and their culture as an unsophisticated bunch of beer-drinking, whale-watching, knitted jumper-wearing innocents is tiresome and ignorant.

Ragnar Kjartansson is not a one-off, an outlier who somehow managed to forge a career as an artist and therefore escape an inevitable life as a fisherman. Iceland has a vibrant artistic community, which has produced some brilliant writers, musicians, and fine artists. They didn't come from nowhere, they emerged from a rich seam of intellectuals that make the country such a magnet for artists of all kinds the world over.

To be fair, the movie isn't all bad. Pierce Brosnan doesn't sing, Rachel McAdams is really good as Sigrit, and some of the production around the performances at the fictionalised Eurovision Song Contest are as slick and spectacular as the real thing.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

But, none of that masks what is ultimately a thin, lame film that had permission to be kitsch but not corny.

It is a good idea badly executed; being neither funny nor clever.

Deux points.

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