For the first time in 64 years, the annual Eurovision Song Contest was canceled this spring. Dashed were the hopes of the frontrunner going into the competition: a submission from Iceland, Daði Freyr’s jazzy, catchy “Think About Things.”
That song is not featured in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, the new Netflix movie out June 26 starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as a small-town Icelandic singing duo passionate about ABBA, metallic costumes and over-the-top pop. But according to many of the former winners who live and breathe the Eurovision life, the blithely self-skewering movie, co-written by Ferrell, may not be so far off from the glittery, campy, subtly political reality of one of the world’s marquee events.
Not just Europe’s Idol
Each year, the Eurovision Song Contest draws about 200 million viewers for the final night of the weeklong competition, making it more popular than the Grammys, the Academy Awards and the Super Bowl. It’s the world’s longest-running annual international TV contest, growing from a seven-country event hosted by the European Broadcasting Union to one that has included 52 nations. Conceived as a way to bring post-WWII European nations together, it kicked off in Switzerland in 1956 and has been hosted by rotating countries ever since.
“In theory, it’s a contest to choose Europe’s best original song,” explains William Lee Adams, a longtime Eurovision superfan and commentator based in the U.K. “In reality, it’s a smorgasbord of pop culture, where music, politics and even notions of good taste mingle in wonderful and often uncomfortable ways. You could call it the World Cup of pop music, but with a lot more dancing.” Adams started a blog in 2009 to track the contest. Ever since, he has been one of its most avid viewers; now, he sits on judging panels for countries selecting their entrants, and hosts an annual party attended by thousands during the competition.
But he also emphasizes that the show, which helped launch careers of artists like ABBA and Celine Dion, is much more than just a talent contest with fun costumes. “The first thing I do with Americans is disavow them of the notion that it’s just a European take on a reality singing contest. Eurovision is so technically advanced; the staging is so immense. It makes American Idol look like a bunch of people humming in your living room,” he says. It also pioneered tele-voting and made real-time cross-border broadcasting a reality.
Plus, it has notable sociopolitical value. The scoreboard lists countries, not artists, and government entities often play a role in the selection. “Whenever you have an individual as the torchbearer for a nation, they become a cultural or even a political symbol,” Adams says. Contestants have often been selected to tell stories about their country’s history, invoke traditional pride or suggest a nation’s forward-looking stances.
That’s been the experience for stars like Netta, the Israeli 2018 winner; Alexander Rybak, the Norwegian winner from 2009; and Conchita Wurst, the stage name of Austrian drag queen Thomas Neuwirth, who took home the title in 2014.
“You turn from a musician into a real national hero,” recalls Netta. She hadn’t been planning on becoming a Eurovision star, but a victory in an Israeli talent contest boosted her to the global stage. “That’s a really, really weird thing to go through. It’s suddenly like you win in the musical Olympics, and you give your little country hope and pride.” Netta says that countries are known to be demonstrably happier after their contestants qualify for finals, and especially when they win. “I get shivers,” Netta says, when she sees videos of fellow Israelis screaming and taking to the streets the night she won.
“It’s a very, very, very big deal,” agrees Conchita. “I’m so lucky, because in this universe, I’m Beyoncé. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.”
Countries are also known to make statements with their choices. In 2015, Armenia sent a group called Genealogy that consisted of members of that nation’s diaspora; they sang a song called “Don’t Deny,” which references the Armenian Genocide, the denial of which remains a painful issue. In 2018, France was represented by a song titled “Mercy,” performed by a duo who told the story of a Nigerian immigrant. “This isn’t just a singing contest. The songs become treatises on the zeitgeists,” Adams insists.
And while, yes, it can also be “a whole world of trash, cheese, tears, fairies, glitter and pink,” as Netta describes it, there are layers to it. Ferrell and McAdams’ version certainly leans into the cheesy side: at one point, Ferrell wears a tight, pure-white onesie while being hoisted in the air and runs on a human-sized hamster wheel; Dan Stevens, who plays a flamboyant Russian competitor named Alexander Lemtov, gives an increasingly bare-chested and lascivious performance of the red-blooded show song “Lion of Love.” But in the second half, the importance of national pride and cultural heritage come to play a surprising role.
A parody with heart
Netta, Conchita and Rybak are just three of the former winners who were asked by Ferrell and director David Dobkin to make cameos in the Eurovision movie, all appearing in a festive party scene stocked with fellow Eurovision stars. “Norwegians, we are very skeptical all the time,” Rybak says. “In Norway, and in Russia, I’m this big celebrity; but in London, maybe [Dobkin] doesn’t even remember who I look like,” Rybak recalls of his insecurities upon arriving to set. But that wasn’t the case at all: Rybak was flattered to be drawn to the center of the action by Dobkin himself.
Netta, Conchita and Adams—who plays a version of himself in the movie as well—also felt the cast’s support. Ferrell sought out Adams to discuss Eurovision in 2018, he says. “I was really impressed with his knowledge. He wanted to make something respectful of the contest, while still having fun with it,” Adams says. “There are some fans who are deeply offended by the thought of a Eurovision parody, but I think we have to celebrate that. The fact is, Eurovision is like a lazy susan that spins round: you can take the political drama, you can take the disposable pop songs or you can take the deep meaning ballad.”
Rybak doesn’t mind the movie’s comic tone, either. “[Ferrell] likes to make fun, but he does parodies with heart. It’s not mocking the weak people.” Netta suggests that the over-the-top quality of the comedy is right at home with the comedy of Eurovision itself. “It takes you from saying ‘Huh?’ to a great amount of laughter to being obsessed with it. That’s the definition of camp. This whole movie celebrates it.”
Plus, it was a rare moment for the elite Eurovision crew to reunite in one place. In the movie, they all seem like old friends, pros at breaking out into spontaneous, glamorous song-and-dance numbers at parties. In reality, the stars admit, they don’t often see each other outside of social media.
“I loved it so much. I played the diva of set: ‘Where are my lines? Can I get some lines?'” Conchita remembers. “I had the best time.”
“You win by being original”
Part of Eurovision’s long-term appeal is its pure campiness. And part of that campiness is in the way it embraces the idiosyncrasies of its competitors. The more outlandish the song, the better. On-stage pyrotechnics? A human-sized hamster wheel? Folk musicians and electronica? You name it, a Eurovision contestant has done it in real life. (Those parts of the movie are not exaggerated parody at all, but perhaps closest to what’s real.)
“It’s one of the last shows where you don’t win by fitting in,” Rybak says. “You don’t win by copying what’s on the playlist. You win by being original.” He snagged his 2009 trophy with “Fairytale,” in which he flexed his violin skills and transformed a traditional folk melody into a pop tune.
Many recent additions to the Eurovision hall of fame have had a powerful back story, too. “Every winner is different,” Netta says. “I’ve also been ashamed of being who I am. I am a big, plus sized, weird, quirky pop star.” But her winning entry, “Toy,” was a referendum of self-empowerment that has endeared her to a new legion of fans.
“Conchita: she’s a symbol of gender fluidity and thinking outside the box,” Netta says of her fellow winner. “A big part of Eurovision is Russia and Ukraine and Bulgaria, which are countries that are not so gay-friendly. To them, the competition is one of the biggest music events for the entire year. They put so much money into this. But parts of them are very homophobic.” Netta has witnessed this homophobia firsthand: at a recent Bulgarian Pride parade, a counter-protest popped up nearly double the size of the main Pride parade. But her experience with Eurovision has made her a firm ally. “Eurovision also brings you to a deep connection with gay pride and the gay community,” she says.
Conchita recognizes the rare space she occupies, too. “As a gay man, being on that stage in a dress, and doing my thing, and getting so much love—I’d never experienced something like that before. It was overwhelming and beautiful. And I got the stage not only to perform but to say something, and make it count.” With a floor-length red carpet gown, long lashes and sleek hair, and a thick beard, Conchita’s distinct drag look is both surprising and defiant.
Conchita is not the first contestant to push gender norms; in 1998, Netta’s own Israel was represented by Dana International, a singer who was a transgender woman. She ended up taking home the prize. “For them to even think about sending a transgender woman to represent was outrageous!” Netta says. But Eurovision is not about kowtowing to expectations. “You can almost do whatever you want. You can come as you are, you can be as you want to be, you will be welcomed, respected and accepted,” Conchita says.
In the Eurovision movie, Stevens‘ outrageous character grapples with this exact conundrum—the gap between political realities of the “dark side” of Europe and some of its more conservative values, and the show’s LGBTQ-friendly ethos. The result is a surprising bit of reflective honesty in a movie that also involves fiery ghosts and fantastical, murderous elves. (As for that character? That “semi-sweet, semi-Dracula kind of vibe,” as Netta puts it, reminded her of San Marino’s 2019 entry. “It’s exactly him!” she says. “He’s playing him so accurately.”)
Eurovision isn’t just restricted to continental Europe: countries like Israel and Australia also send contestants. Why, wonders Rybak, hasn’t it expanded even further?
“It’s nice that we have a European culture, this Euro tradition. But America [as a continent] doesn’t have anything like this. One of the great things about Eurovision is we forget about politics. For a week, it’s a competition, but it’s a peaceful competition. It would be so nice to have Africa, America, Asia, whole continents,” Rybak says.
For now, with 2020’s contest canceled and 2021 a year away, audiences whose interest is piqued by Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga will have to be satisfied with the 65-year backlog of Eurovision content waiting to be explored. From Loreen’s “Euphoria” to Mahmood’s “Soldi” (some of Netta’s recommendations) to this year’s submissions from Iceland and Malta (Conchita’s suggestions), the stars rattle off a diverse list of their favorites.
Since their big wins, Netta, Conchita and Rybak have each carved out ongoing musical careers of their own, too. Still, there are challenges. “There’s all these artists, and all they do is just one song. If you’re a fan of the competition, when you remember someone, you remember that one song. That becomes them. That’s the danger of being a Eurovision star,” Netta says. “I cherish Eurovision for opening me to the world, but I found out that it’s a very difficult path.” Her latest single “Cuckoo” is about this struggle. It’s one thing that the zany characters Ferrell and and McAdams play might not have minded too much, however. They seem quite satisfied with returning to their small-town Icelandic existence.
“Can you imagine if the contest would have taken place, and Iceland would have won, and this movie would have come out?” Conchita laughs. “I mean, I’m sorry!” It’s rough luck this year for the real-life Icelandic artists. But already, the wheels are turning for the 2021 installment next May, set to take place in Rotterdam. The movie may work as a quick hit of Eurovision euphoria, or an introduction for those of us yet to be drawn into its orbit. But ultimately it’s the show that must—and will—go on.