You think American Idol has had a long shelf life? Simon Cowell’s little brainstorm has nothing on the Eurovision Song Contest.
The contest has been crowning winners since the Eisenhower administration, with Switzerland claiming the very first title back in 1956. It operates a little like the Olympics, with singers from as many as 50 countries taking part—warbling for fame, fortune and their flags. Sweden’s ABBA launched its career there. Celine Dion—competing for Switzerland, oddly—took the title back in 1988. Ireland has won the contest a record seven times. Sweden’s next with six, with France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom notching five wins apiece.
Iceland has never won. But Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Ericksdottir hope to change that.
From the time the two started dancing to ABBA way back in 1974, the duo has dreamed of performing on the Eurovision stage. Well, Lars has, anyway. Sigrit, bless her heart, just wants what Lars wants.
Oh, she’s not blind. Perhaps she sees that Lars lacks a certain … oh, I don’t know, something, that most Eurovision winners have. Talent, it’s called. But they’ve been singing together since the two of them were children, and Sigrit would like nothing more than to be by Lars’ side on stage and, honestly, for the rest of her life—perhaps with a baby in tow.
Oh, and Sigrit actually has talent. The girl can sing. I mean, really sing.
Still, most folks don’t think that Fire Saga (that’s what Lars and Sigrit call their little duo) has a chance of even reaching the Eurovision Song Contest. They certainly won’t win the regional competition in Iceland. It may not be a pop music powerhouse, but the quirky little island can still do better than them.
But when the selection committee picks Fire Song’s submission at random out of a hopper to be one of the 12 groups under consideration, and when a boat carrying the other 11 would-be representatives mysteriously explodes offshore, the landscape changes.
“They’re so, so, so, so, so, so bad,” chair of the Icelandic selection committee sadly says. But the bylaws are clear: As the surviving runner-up, Fire Saga is in by default.
Lars and Sigrit are both thrilled (despite the passing of their fellow Icelandic artists). The rest of Iceland just hopes the duo aren’t heading for their own Waterloo.
Any movie that hints at the reality of murderous elves and features a giant hamster wheel is, perhaps, not one that lends itself to introspection. And yet for all its silliness, Eurovision Song Contest is surprisingly sincere and, in its own way, pretty sweet.
We begin with Sigrit and her steadfast support of Lars. Everyone in their hometown sees Lars as “weird.” His own father, Erick, is ashamed of him. (We know this because Lars says that his father recently “looked deep in my eyes and said, ‘I am ashamed of you.’”) Sigrit’s mother encourages her daughter to move on. But Sigrit—who says that Lars was instrumental in getting her to speak when she was a strange little mute girl—refuses to forsake her longtime friend, sticking with him in almost every possible circumstance.
And as the contest runs ludicrously on for the pair, the rest of their hometown of Husavik begins to see something special in them, too. Not good, maybe, but special. The two display what Erick calls a “Viking spirit:” an unwillingness to quit, no matter the circumstance.
“I know they’re awful, but they’re our awful!” a Husavikian resident shouts in a tavern where a soccer game plays on the telly. “So let’s change the channel and take our medicine!”
Real-life polls suggest that more than half of Iceland’s population believes in elves. Sigrit is among that small majority. She actually visits a row of tiny houses where these magical creatures supposedly live, leaving food and whiskey for them—and petitioning them for favors. She wants their help, for instance, in getting into the Eurovision contest. And when a boat with all of Iceland’s most promising singers explodes, Sigrit exclaims, “The elves went too far!”
Lars is an elf skeptic. But that doesn’t necessarily hold true throughout the entire movie. And indeed, it would seem that the many of the favors asked of the elves are indeed granted in one way or another. And while we never actually see these small beings, the movie offers a few hints that they do indeed exist.
When Lars learns that Fire Saga’s been accepted to compete in the regional, Iceland-wide competition (to earn the right to go on to the Eurovision contest), he runs into the town’s church and rings the bell. (He’s promptly arrested.) We see a shot of Hallgrímskirkja, perhaps Iceland’s most iconic church, and plenty of church steeples in the background of Eurovision’s host city, Edinburgh. Some of Fire Saga’s performances feature angel wings. A ghost shows up on occasion. A rock band goes on the Eurovision stage dressed in a variety of demonic and monster costumes.
While Sigrit would love if she and Lars took their partnership to another, more romantic level, Lars staunchly refuses. When they’re about to kiss, Lars pushes her face away, reciting a number of bands that (he says) broke up because of relational issues: Fleetwood Mac, for instance, as well as ABBA and “Semen and Garfunkle.”
This leaves both of them theoretically open to other suitors during the competition, and boy, are they suited.
Sigrit is wooed by the handsome Russian contestant Alexander Lemtov, whose Edinburgh palace is decorated with nude Greek statues that sport exaggerated male anatomical features, which we see plenty of. We hear a great deal of conversation about the size of his own private parts, too. But Lemtov does seem to send some mixed signals.
While the song Lemtov sings is seemingly about heterosexual conquest, his cadre of male background dancers are aggressively homoerotic; and there are indications throughout that, as much as he pursues Sigrit, his inclinations lean otherwise. While Lemtov insists that he’s purely heterosexual (he tells people that Russia doesn’t have any gay people living there), he seems to admit to a friend that the country would not welcome everything about him. (Sigrit and Lemtov do spend the night together, but he spends it simply braiding her hair.)
Lars, meanwhile, stuffs cloth down his pants to make the region look bigger (the result is rather awkward), and Sigrit asks if she should augment her own nether-regions (leading to a crass conversation). Still more ridiculous conversation about his anatomy ensues, with Lars comparing it to a Volvo’s reliability. Another female singer takes a liking to him, and she aggressively attacks him in his and Sigrit’s hotel room. The next morning, Sigrit walks in on the two of them in bed, apparently naked. [Spoiler Warning] Later, the other singer says that nothing actually happened that night. She wanted to have sex, but Lars refused.
While Fire Saga’s hometown of Husavik doesn’t have a great deal of love for the duo, its residents can’t get enough of one song they sing called “Ja Ja Ding Dong.” We’ll not repeat the lyrics here, and instead say it’s just one long, crassly lyrical sexual joke.
When Sigrit and Lars get into a fight, they both announce their intention to sleep with whomever they please. Lars is particularly aggressive—pointing to a bevy of people (both women and men) and telling them that he plans to have sex with each and every one of them. (Later, he admits to himself that he had “no chance” with one of the guys he pointed to.)
People kiss. There’s a running joke that most folks imagine that Lars and Sigrit are brother and sister: No way, Sigrit says, but Lars always answers, “probably not.” Later, we understand the hint of doubt in Lars’ mind: Someone suggests that Erick might’ve fathered half the children in Husavik. (Erick admits later, though, that he never had any luck with the Ericksdottir women.)
In an imagined music video, Lars wears a large codpiece. Some of the performances for Eurovision take on a sexual—and occasionally homosexual—feel. A singing montage features several past (actual) Eurovision contestants, including a couple of apparent cross-dressing and/or transsexual singers.
Sigrit expresses her desire to have a baby with Lars, but there’s no mention of marriage. We hear a couple of references to testicles. Men and women both wear suggestive and revealing garments. Some song lyrics can be pretty crass, too. Someone makes a suggestive body movement while talking about HBO’s Game of Thrones.
As mentioned, a boat blows up, killing everyone aboard. Debris—including the arm of one of the contestants—lands near Lars and Sigrit. Someone is nearly strangled. Another person is literally stabbed in the back. Someone falls from a pretty substantial height. A man drives a car dangerously (causing a minor accident along the way). A ghost floats about, half of her body aflame and charred.
A gigantic hamster wheel causes a great deal of chaos in the Eurovision audience and results in minor injuries to a couple of contestants. (They suffer a handful of cuts, it looks like, but the announcer seems to have half-expected the incident would kill them both.)
We hear one f-word (and witness an obscene gesture that means the same thing) and 16 s-words. We also hear “crap,” “h—” and the f-word substitute “freaking.” God’s name is misused nearly 20 times, with three of those instances featuring the word “d–n” as well.
Characters drink wine, champagne, beer and a bevy of other alcoholic beverages. Sigrit drinks so much one evening that she gets sick. Lars taunts some American tourists by telling them he has “opiates” (a reference to, of course, the country’s opioid crisis.)
Sigrit spends some time hanging over a toilet, telling Lars (as she vomits) that she had so much fun that evening. “Yes, let all the fun out,” Lars tells her.
Lars really doesn’t like American tourists.
I’ve never seen the real Eurovision Song Contest (which, because of the coronavirus, will not be held in 2020 for the first time since its 1956 inception). But from what I gather, it’s a wee bit unhinged. The over-the-top sets! The uneven performances! The garish costumes! It’s also incredibly popular, too, with literally hundreds of millions of people around the globe tuning in. So it’s gotta have something going for it.
Netflix’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga may, thus, share more than just the name and premise with its real-life counterpart. It’s silly, trashy, occasionally horrifying and just a little bit great.
The story here, like the songs and talent we see in most any singing competition, is strangely affecting. Sigrit and her unbridled loyalty to Lars; Lars and his deep (if delusional) ambition to sing at Eurovision; the conflict-riven but ultimately redemptive story of Lars and his father, Erick; the true “Viking spirit” that Lars and Sigrit display through disastrous circumstances and the odd sense of pride that they, eventually, bring home to their quirky island nation.
I’m about as Icelandic as my Sony TV, but when Sigrit breaks into her native tongue at one critical juncture, I found myself feeling … proud? Of Iceland? Or was I just understanding that sense of loving something or someplace or someone because we know it so well, and we see things in them that only we, perhaps, truly see?
But alas, we see—and hear—lots of other less savory elements in Eurovision song contest, too, any one of which might well pull the whole works down like a clunky and perhaps murderous hamster wheel. The silliness is what makes movies like this work. The salaciousness … well, that’s something Eurovision Song Contest didn’t need, and many families don’t want.
And that’s too bad.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.