How Netflix's 'Eurovision' Movie Embraces the Real Singing Competition It's Named For

Director David Dobkin relied on actual Eurovision fans to capture the spectacle of the annual event.

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When director David Dobkin first read the script for Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, the new Netflix comedy starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as an aspiring Icelandic musical duo, he thought it was "brilliant" and "fresh." He had just one issue: They should change the title. "I called my agent back and I said, 'It's really good. I think I want to do this thing. But we have to change the title. It's a horrible title,'" Dobkin recalls. "He said, 'I think this is a real contest, David.' And I went, 'What?'"

Eurovision, of course, is very much a real thing. It's a televised singing competition that has been held since 1956 in which entries from (mostly) European countries perform (mostly) ridiculous pop songs. It has a labyrinthian voting system that involves awarding points via juries and fans. It is responsible for launching the careers of ABBA and Celine Dion, and inspires worldwide festivities every year. (Not 2020, though -- the competition was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.) Dobkin, the director of Wedding Crashers, quickly rectified his misconception.

"I just fell in love with what it was, that it was kind of campy and cheesy, but also extremely well done, and some of the songwriting is incredible and some of the singing and performances are incredible," he says. "By the time I landed in Tel Aviv a few months later to shoot the finals of last year's Eurovision, I was deep into it and addicted."

Eurovision Song Contest is a movie made out of love for, rather than mockery of, the competition it's named after. Ferrell plays Lars Erickssong, an aspiring songwriter from a tiny town in Iceland who has longed to compete in Eurovision since he was a little boy, despite the dismay of his serious and handsome father (Pierce Brosnan). He and his best friend Sigrit Ericksdottir (McAdams) play local gigs as the band Fire Saga where the crowd has no interest in their pop experiments, instead demanding they play tunes like "Jaja Ding Dong," a fake traditional folk song written for the film. But thanks to an unexpected disaster, they end up competing as Iceland's entry in Eurovision, during which their relationship is tested and chaos, obviously, ensues.

Ferrell, as Dobkin explains, came to the project as a fan, even working to secure the rights to the name on his own. Ferrell's wife is from Sweden and he goes to the country every summer where he makes a habit of watching Eurovision. A Swedish wife is also how songwriter Savan Kotecha, best known for collaborating with Ariana Grande on tracks like "God Is a Woman," was introduced to the contest.

"I used to get really annoyed at it because I didn't really appreciate it at first because I'm an American," says Kotecha. "I was being really snobby about the lyrics, like, 'Oh, that's not cool.' And then I sort of gave in and started really enjoying it." So when Netflix called and asked if he knew anyone who could help coordinate the music for the movie, he jumped at the opportunity. Kotecha then set out writing "Double Trouble," the primary song that Fire Saga uses, with Rami Yacoub, who is from Sweden, and Arnthor Birgisson from Iceland. The lyrics are a coy reference to a phenomenon that Birgisson brought up: Iceland is such a small country that people who show romantic interest in one another have to be sure they aren't related. 

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"The thing with Eurovision, it's like -- and me and David talked about [this] a lot -- is the melodies are always, for the most part, really good," Kotecha says. "If you strip down the songs and you just hum them, take away the lyrics that sometimes feel Google translated into English and the bombastic production, it's melody. Melody is the universal language. A really great melody is most of the Eurovision songs."

Case in point: "Lion of Love," the song Kotecha co-wrote, which is performed by the suave Russian competitor Alexander Lemtov, played by Dan Stevens. (The vocals are done by Swedish singer Erik Mjönes.) "We just ran with this, like, 'What would the overly macho guy covering up he is gay say?'" Kotecha says. 

But for as goofy as a tune like "Lion of Love" is, proof of Eurovision's respect for Eurovision can be seen in the "song-a-long" sequence, a parody of the Pitch Perfect "riff-off" that features 10 former Eurovision contestants and winners, like Conchita Wurst, Netta, Loreen, and Jamala, performing a medley of songs that includes ABBA's "Waterloo" and Céline Dion's "Ne Partez" (both real-life Eurovision winners), Madonna's "Ray of Light," and the Black Eyed-Peas' "I Gotta Feeling." The script called for as many Eurovision alums as possible to participate in the extravagant number, which takes place at a party hosted by Lemtov.

"It was a campaign that went on for months and months and months, and [included] tons of phone calls to managers and record labels, and then eventually artists and then trying to coordinate them all and fly them all in and record them all," Dobkin explains the beleaguered process. Ultimately, it turned out to be a "magical" moment. "Eventually, when they all showed up on set, I was a little bit like, 'Oh my god, are they all going to be able to play together?' I remember walking to the base camp," Dobkin recalls. "And Loreen and Tom/Conchita and a bunch of other people were there just laughing and having such a sweet time in the parking lot. It was three days of the most amazing shooting." 

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Dobkin had originally planned to go to last year's Eurovision in Tel Aviv with Ferrell and McAdams as a sort of fact-finding mission, but ended up shooting crowd scenes there, realizing he couldn't recreate the massive setting on the budget he had. When he hopped on stage to tell the audience that they were making a Eurovision movie, "people just went nuts," he remembers. 

Coronavirus canceled the 2020 edition of the competition in Rotterdam and Dobkin's plans to reunite Eurovision alums and his cast with a premiere. Still, the movie should be a balm for fans who are missing their annual celebrations. "We were telling a story at Eurovision that's really what it is. We were not trying to make fun of the contest," Dobkin says. "It was where we wanted to set our story, which is a very different version than other kinds of movies, even things that Will's done, like [Blades of Glory] or [Talladega Nights], where they actually do get inside those worlds, and they have fun with the world in that way. I was very aware of the fact that so many people love this. And I want them to watch it and feel the affection for the event, as opposed to feel like we were using it as a stage for comedy." 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.