The 2021 Hugo Award finalists list features a fascinating entry under Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: Alongside comic book-inspired romps (Birds of Prey), some loopy time business (Palm Springs, Tenet), and treatises on immortality and the afterlife (The Old Guard, Soul) is Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, Netflix’s Eurovision movie starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as two naïve Icelandic singers with dreams of campy stardom.
It might initially seem like a surprise that Eurovision made it onto the Hugos list, although this underrated comedy does establish itself as fantastical with nothing more than a knife and a door in one of 2020’s best movie moments. Yet even beyond that, The Story of Fire Saga is undeniably a fantasy narrative. After all, who is Fire Saga if not a pair of bards embarking on an epic adventure to discover foreign realms and downright magical new ways of singing?
We will get to the Icelandic elves at the appropriate time—because they are crucial to Fire Saga’s success—but the best way to examine Eurovision’s fantasy elements, from the first call to adventure to the final note, is through the movie’s soundtrack of covers, mashups, and wonderfully earworm-y original songs. Not only is music the language through which Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Ericksdóttir communicate with one another and the basis of their close bond, but the ways in which their songs reach audiences—and not the songs you would necessarily expect—have the same shape and enchantment of a well-cast spell.
It all begins with ABBA—namely, their own origin story winning the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, and how it taught a little girl to speak. There is a touch of destiny as to how “Waterloo” brings both Lars and Sigrit out of their respective shells—he mourning the death of his mother, and she mute for reasons unexplained. It also establishes their dynamic, in that screen time is devoted to young Lars dancing in front of his father Erick (Pierce Brosnan) and the other adults in Húsavík, and then being embarrassed when they laugh at him; yet we never see Sigrit first open her mouth to sing—it’s only mentioned as part of her backstory, despite this being far more momentous than Lars’ childish antics.
“Waterloo,” with its lyrics about surrendering one’s fears to embrace love, draws Sigrit’s own voice out of wherever it had been hidden, making her a fairy tale figure regaining something she didn’t realize she’d lost.
Plus, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again has already established that ABBA has magical powers, as its credits scene literally brings back the dead and reunites older and younger selves across time and space in sequined bodysuits to sing “Super Trouper” (“Waterloo” was in the first Mamma Mia! movie, though its magic was limited to getting Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgård into platform boots and sequins).
The first time we meet adult Lars and Sigrit, it’s as they see themselves: he dressed like Thor down to the winged helmet, she an ethereal enchantress. Adorned with silver makeup, chanting along with nature as if laying down a spell to summon eruptions from Iceland’s ancient volcanoes.
And then they get jolted out of their shared daydream, into the reality: They are a pair of misfits in closet cosplay, keyboard-smashing in Lars’ father’s basement. Their only “power” is to trip a fuse with their ersatz setup, and while their song is a bop, it may never be heard by anyone but themselves—making their epic name seem like even more of an overstatement when compared to their humble situation.
For the moment, Fire Saga are working-class bards, ably bantering and entertaining at the local watering hole, but their true potential is quashed by too many nights playing Pharrell covers to the people they grew up with. To the rest of Húsavík, they are simply a pair of voices for singing crowd-pleasers, their dreams of Eurovision stardom a waste of time when they could instead be singing…
“Jaja Ding Dong”
“Double Trouble” may be the movie’s through line song, but “Jaja Ding Dong” is the first instance of Fire Saga’s capacity to enchant their listeners. The locals reject Fire Saga’s attempts to play their Eurovision entry in favor of “Jaja Ding Dong,” a seemingly nonsense song with an immediately compelling melody. This goes beyond a typical crowd favorite—the way that Olaf Yohansson (Hannes Óli Ágústsson) screams “YOU MUST PLAY IT!!” when demanding an encore speaks to a gut-deep obsession with this one-and-a-half-minute ditty.
“Shut your mouth or the elves will shut it for you!” (Elves Interlude #1)
Consider my tongue firmly in cheek as I refer to each mention of the elves as a mere interlude, since their presence is really a sustained, ongoing note of otherworldliness throughout the film.
Lars wants nothing more than to compete in Eurovision Song Contest, to be among the world’s best performers and to bring pride to Iceland—but especially to sleepy and idyllic Húsavík. Sigrit’s desire is a bit more mythical: She wishes to hit the speorg note, the manifestation of her truest self as an artist. However, her mother doesn’t believe she can achieve music from her heart while singing with Lars and dealing with his many hangups.
So, Sigrit goes to the Icelandic elves for help, leaving offerings of food and drink at their (presumably) man-made little houses on a Húsavík hillside. The Huldufólk, or hidden people, are a part of Icelandic folklore yet derided by the majority of Icelanders in the movie; Sigrit’s visits are seen as hopelessly naïve and a waste of good liquor and treats. Yet she persists in her bargaining, at first asking the elves to fulfill Lars’ dreams of fame, so that her dreams of him realizing she’s his soulmate might be fulfilled. And maybe also a baby down the line, but first they need to kiss, and even before that they need to get to Euorvision.
And, what do you know, Fire Saga’s demo gets plucked out of a box of submissions by the Eurovision committee at RÚV, Iceland’s public service broadcaster. Of course, that’s only because they’re required to put forward a backup in case for some reason their top contender can’t perform. But she’s a shoo-in, because of her song…
“In the Mirror”
Casting Demi Lovato as Katiana Lindsdóttir is pitch-perfect: A literal Disney princess (in the Disney-teen-pipeline sense), she can belt like it was a gift bestowed in the cradle by a fairy godmother. “In the Mirror” is certainly hook-y, though with each listen it becomes clear that for all its flashiness, it’s ultimately an empty repetition of the same line—a series of mirrors reflecting back on one another without actually showing anything.
“Double Trouble” (Söngvakeppnin)
“Double Trouble” is a curse. Someone who hates these cheery bards hexed them with a song that should show off their endearing dynamic, if they could only get it right. Instead, Lars’ unceasing perfectionism and anxiety about making fools of themselves becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, ironically leaving Sigrit to sing her half of the number alone—his absence clear in the backing tracks thumping along without his voice while she stares helplessly at an unsympathetic audience.
The song also just lacks heart. It’s boppy, it’s a crowd-pleaser, it’s a little bit meta, but it just doesn’t tell us much about Fire Saga themselves. At Iceland’s qualifiers, they try desperately to recreate their epic alter egos from the “Volcano Man” music video, even in their humble garb and strapped-on wings, but it is not to be. And then the audience laughs, and everyone at their local bar is laughing, and the bards have become jesters.
“THE ELVES HAVE GONE TOO FAR!” (Elves Interlude #2)
The elves don’t care about Lars getting laughed at, but they always honor a bargain—and so they blow up the party boat loaded with all of the Icelandic competitors, except for Fire Saga. At least, that’s Sigrit’s take on the freak accident, with McAdams’ breathless delivery of the line above one of the best parts of the movie. And just like that, Fire Saga gets to pass through the metaphorical wardrobe, Narnia-style, and enter the fantastical world of Eurovision.
“Amar Pelos Dois”
The hotel is the perfect inn at which to start their adventure—the minibar is a dragon’s treasure hoard, the discotheques transport them to another plane via their beloved music. And this montage is all set to Salvador Sabral’s poignant song, which diegetically makes its way into the movie as Sigrit and Lars stumble upon a fellow bard (in this case, a pianist) on the street, playing music not for fame but for the simple love of it.
But back to Eurovision, and Fire Saga’s competition!
“Lion of Love” (Eurovision Rehearsals)
Who better to embody the dazzling, fiery spectacle of Eurovision than queer Russian singer-as-sorcerer Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens, with the vocals of Erik Mjönes). Strutting across the backs of his pliant backup dancers, from his first drawn-out “LOOOOOOOOVE” he glamours all eyes and ears… including that of Sigrit, who sees the potential of this seasoned wizard who can take her on as his apprentice and help her access the speorg note.
“Double Trouble” (Eurovision Rehearsals)
Like Narnia, Eurovision bears little resemblance to the real world, even as the acts prepare without an audience: Sigrit is thrust, Wizard of Oz-style, into technicolor staging complete with light effects and an unexpected troupe of backup dancers meant to frame her with backup vocals and jazz hands as she attempts to sing “Double Trouble” the way she always has. Except that Lars has commissioned a remix that makes the song seem even more artificial, and now beneath the spotlights—as in every music movie—their dynamic is shifting. Like “Volcano Man,” this sequence illustrates the harsh disparity between how Fire Saga thinks they look and sound, and how they actually appear—except this time it’s not Sigrit and Lars both indulging in the daydream together, it’s just him leaping ahead toward some impossible fantasy to which she’s not privy.
A similar study in music-as-enchantment is Pitch Perfect, from Anna Kendrick’s enthralling sleight of hand in “Cups” to how she leads the Barden Bellas into a capella battle. That movie’s “Riff-Off” sequence, with its competitive wordplay, feels like a predecessor to Eurovision’s “Song-Along,” an epic mashup in Lemtov’s Edinburgh palace. Between the fictional competitors and the real-life Eurovision stars singing a mix of Madonna, Cher, and even ABBA, it’s a convocation of bards at the glittering court: comparing garb and styles from distant lands, individually commanding the collective attention and riffing off one another to weave their voices together.
This includes even Sigrit, who initially hesitates, reverting to her previous shyness, until Lemtov coaxes her out with “Waterloo”—exactly what Lars should have been doing, instead of trying to force her into a role that’s not her.
“Double Trouble” (Semi-Finals)
By this point, Fire Saga’s hot-mess reputation has preceded them, so much so that the Eurovision audience and commentators alike are shocked when they appear onstage having stripped away some of the more outlandish effects (the hamster wheel notwithstanding), dressed appropriately (except for that scarf), and even, for the first time, make it to the second verse of their chosen song.
But the curse reappears, this time cutting off Sigrit’s voice via that deadly scarf, and their performance goes up in flames. “The elves must hate us!” Sigrit cries, and it’s not funny, not when it feels as if her earnest bargain has been broken. This time the audience’s laughter is so much crueler, disregarding our poor bards’ attempt to see the song through to the end despite everything.
It’s Lars’ worst nightmare, so he flees—but in doing so he breaks Fire Saga’s covenant to finish the contest together, leaving Sigrit alone to endure the humiliation of receiving zero points. His surrender also reveals the disparity between them: Sigrit is an artist who will accept her failure chin-up, while Lars just wants to be a winner.
Because Lars cannot bear to take the worst of it, he misses the best of it: the laughter that eventually turns into respectful applause, then admiring points from other countries, and the incredible opportunity to advance to the finals.
“I’ll just leave the knife here… in case you have to… do other murders.” (Elves Interlude #3)
And so we come to the most on-the-nose fantasy element of the story: Proof that the Icelandic elves are real…and they’re killers. When Lars goes to make an offering to the huldufólk, initially it seems more that he’s acquiescing to Sigrit’s beliefs, following along with her rituals in a first step toward taking her feelings more into account. He half-heartedly asks “for any help you can give me,” only trying because “Sigrit swears by it.”
But when Victor Karlosson (Mikael Persbrandt), governor of Iceland’s Central Bank and Eurovision saboteur, tries to murder Lars like he did the boat full of singers, all it takes is one expertly-thrown knife to take him down. When my husband and I first watched this movie, we were open-mouthed in shock—did that really just happen? Even for a Will Ferrell movie, it was such a bonkers plot twist, as out-of-nowhere as a tiny blade hurtling out of an elf’s cozy hillside home.
And then Lars looks up, and the elves’ door slams, and we lost our shit. It is such a deliriously funny moment that no one could have predicted, and it upholds the film’s sense of wonder and faith in forces beyond human control. Victor, with his petty human vendetta, blew up the boat, an act we had previously given the elves credit for. But when it mattered most, they honored their goddamn bargain.
Let us not forget that Eurovision Song Contest also features Katiana’s ghost as another speculative feature, but she’s so ineffectual in warning Lars about his impending murder that we will give all credit for saving his life to the elves.
“Lion of Love” (Finals)
Lemtov’s number is no less charged at the finals, but Sigrit is not his queen, and his “LOOOOOOVE” doesn’t quite hit the speorg note. The apprentice has learned all she can from the master.
“Double Trouble” (Finals)
Lemtov does, however, braid Sigrit’s hair in a style not unlike Thor’s braided beard in Avengers: Endgame—a sign that she’s ready to go into musical battle alone. She may still be singing “Double Trouble,” but she has resolved to be one voice performing a duet, committing to finish the journey they started. In her armored dress and braids, she looks like a warrior princess.
Then Lars interrupts her, as he has many times over the course of trying to perform this cursed song—but this time it’s with intention. As he tells the assembled viewers and their friends and family back in Húsavík, he has made his peace with not winning the contest because “as most of you know, Eurovision is much more than a competition. And music is not a contest, and the perfect song isn’t a winning song, but a song that comes from the heart.”
“Húsavík (My Home Town)”
In a bit of movie magic—or bardic magic—Lars has figured out how to play Sigrit’s half-finished song on the keyboard just from hearing it once. It doesn’t matter that they’ll be disqualified because this isn’t their official entry song; he’s giving Sigrit the opportunity to be an artist, to sing from the heart.
Of course, when she’s struggling through “Húsavík” earlier in the movie, it’s because she can’t find the right words. Or rather, English doesn’t possess the words for what she wants to say… so she sings in Icelandic instead, and the smiles and tears it brings to the people of Húsavík is worth everything.
What makes this song even more triumphant is the behind-the-scenes story of Molly Sandén, the singer whose vocals were mixed with McAdams’ (credited as My Marianne): Having competed on a junior version of Eurovision four times and never won, she finally gets her redemption story with these tracks. In a lovely bit of kismet, Sandén described the first time she hit the speorg note as “I just saw stars twinkling, like gold and glitter coming from the roof. It was just a magical thing that happened when I nailed this long note for the first time. And I thought, Wow, this is my magic, this is my superpower. I have to have this note in my song to be able to win.”
Sigrit hitting the speorg note is Arthur pulling Excalibur from the stone. It’s Elsa building her ice palace. It’s William Thatcher knocking Count Adhemar off his horse. She doesn’t win Eurovision, but that was a given. She does, however, finally sing from her heart, and succeed in making Lars realize that she already has his.
And then they return home. Like the Pevensies, they choose to retrace their steps and give up the fantastical for the ordinary. Perhaps like Frodo and Sam, they always intended to return to their humble origins. Fire Saga had certainly built up enough of a following that they could have ridden that fame to a record deal, but instead Sigrit and Lars return to their neighbors in Húsavík, who seem to have finally recognized their bardic talent.
They settle down and have that baby Sigrit asked the elves for, and they pick up their old gig playing at the local bar—including for the wedding of their parents, which is only a little weird. And you can’t have a wedding without…
“Jaja Ding Dong”
It’s the most fitting encore anyone could have asked for from Fire Saga; forget “Húsavík,” the people know what they want. It’s also a completely filthy song. Anyone listening to “Jaja Ding Dong” more than once will pick up the lyrics that are somehow simultaneously lewd and wholesome. It’s bawdy, it’s a crowd-pleaser, and it’s the perfect song for these bards who have been through the Eurovision portal and back.
“Jaja Ding Dong” is mundane to Fire Saga, but to their listeners it’s magic. Choosing to return to their hometown and bring that familiar, everyday, well-loved magic into Olaf’s and everyone else’s lives is the perfect final note for Fire Saga.
I would not have been able to open my mind to Eurovision’s magical properties were it not for Leah Schnelbach’s brilliant analysis of the John Wick movies as portal fantasy—but I hope this means we can continue to find the magic in stories that wouldn’t automatically be regarded as SFF.
Now Natalie Zutter wants to see a “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher”/”Jaja Ding Dong” mashup. In the meantime, she’ll keep listening to her personal favorite Eurovision song, Moldova’s 2017 hit “Run Away.” Share your favorites with her on Twitter!