I’m honored to interrupt this year’s Movie Club. Many of the movies you’ve already mentioned—all of Lovers Rock, the pure beauty of First Cow (sorry, Odie)—are on my 2020 best-of list as well, but there’s one glaring omission from this discussion that I’m here to fix: Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. The great movies of this year made me feel joy, but Eurovision Song Contest made me feel ecstasy.
The Netflix comedy stars Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as a couple of Icelandic rubes and would-be Eurovision stars who call themselves “Fire Saga.” It’s a borderline nonsensical movie that includes elven intervention, Demi Lovato as a ghost, and a song called “Jaja Ding Dong” That’s to say, it’s the kind of movie I’d pitch to a friend by saying, “It’s not going to win any Oscars, but …” But what I’m saying now is, maybe it should.
For me, it’s the movie that best captures a total sense of (perhaps naïve) earnestness—you have to shed any cynicism you’re holding onto in order to fully enjoy it, but once you do, the experience is like hitting the drop on a roller coaster, but for two hours straight. The key scene, for me, is the “song-along,” which places Ferrell and McAdams at a party attended by real Eurovision stars (Conchita Wurst, Netta, etc.) and pulls them into an impromptu jam session. The songs that the stars blend together—Cher’s “Believe,” ABBA’s “Waterloo,” the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling,” Celine Dion’s “Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi,” and Madonna’s “Ray of Light”—epitomize the spirit behind the entire film, which is to say, cheesy, unabashedly joyful, and strangely life-affirming if you open your heart. You cannot enjoy these songs while still clinging to any sense of irony, nor can you enjoy this movie while turning your nose up at the idea of “lowbrow” entertainment.
While American Utopia is the closest thing we have to a concert experience this year, Eurovision Song Contest is the closest thing we have to a karaoke party, detached from the bounds of reality—the kind of party where you don’t have to worry about some random guy grinding up on you, the kind of party where everyone’s just there to sing their hearts out and have a good time. (At the risk of outing myself as even more of a nerd, the song-along scene was the closest I’ve ever felt to replicating my collegiate a cappella parties.) The stars sing directly into the camera, both inviting the viewer to participate in the party and giving up any sense of “seriousness.” Is it deranged that I cry even just watching the song-along as a YouTube clip? Maybe, but it speaks to how well the scene works as a celebration.
This year especially, I’ve come to appreciate movies in which everyone involved totally commits to the bit and makes themselves vulnerable to ridicule. (It’s why, for instance, I sincerely believe that Vince Vaughn’s turn in Freaky is one of the best performances of the year.) It’s not an easy mindset for a performer to find, but it lends a film a joie de vivre that was in short supply in 2020.
I don’t think it’s incidental that a lot of our favorite movies of the year have been so musically oriented—finding the right jam is a shortcut to a serotonin boost, and a crucial part of storytelling that can sometimes get lost in the mix. It’s obviously front and center in Eurovision, which only cements my belief that the movie deserves at least one Oscar, for Best Original Song. That said, I wouldn’t be upset about a Best Picture nomination, or a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Dan Stevens, whose flamboyant performance as Russian singer Alexander Lemtov had better have landed him at least five more comedic roles, if casting directors were paying attention.
Keep calm and play “Jaja Ding Dong,”