With audiences continuing to enjoy theatre from the comfort of their couches; Netflix’s new offering to home-bound movie-musical lovers tackles a side of musical theatrics with which few Americans are familiar: the Eurovision Song Contest.
Now entering it’s 66th year of competition, Eurovision has been described as the “European Idol” of music festivals, garnering over 300 million viewers a year. In Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (out June 26), a spoof on the actual international music competition, Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams play a pair of down-on-their luck Icelandic singers desperate to represent their country in the contest with their song “Volcano Man.”
For anyone who follows Eurovision (of which there is a small, but growing, and deeply obsessive fandom), people know that this is more than just a song contest. In the past two decades, the show has also been a platform for airing regional political conflicts. The long-standing tension between the nations of Armenia and Azerbaijan take the stage each year as both countries refuse to award the other points. In 2009, Azerbaijan even went so far as to arrest and question 43 of its citizens who (it discovered) text-voted for the Armenian song. Similarly in wake of the annexation of Crimea, Ukraine banned the 2017 Russian artist from performing, when the show was hosted in Kiev. (Let’s not even get started on the political and social backlash given the fact the singer was also a woman in a wheelchair).
Alongside the deep political intrigue, the contest is memorable for a type of theatricality one can only imagine arises from the fever dreams of its producers. From octogenarian Russian grandmothers baking bread on stage while singing “Party for Everybody,” to a backup dancer running in a life-sized hamster wheel, and even a number featuring hyper-sexualized Polish milk-maids; the contest has been a factory for a niche type of music and stage performance beloved by Europe. In the preview for The Story of Fire Saga, fans can see the filmmakers have done their research; there is a clip of Will Ferrell running around on a hamster wheel.
For theatre-lovers, Eurovision has seen its fair-share of golden Broadway moments: Riverdance, before coming to Broadway, premiered as a Eurovision interval act at the 1994 competition. ABBA won the 1974 contest with their hit “Waterloo”, and even Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber himself composed the U.K.’s song in 2009.
Playbill spoke with Savan Kotecha, the Grammy-nominated executive music producer of the new Netflix film, to find out more about bringing the specific brand of Eurovision music to an American movie musical.
Savan, before signing onto the project, what was your exposure to Eurovision? How did you learn about it?
Savan Kotecha: I lived in Sweden for 15 years and my wife is Swedish so I was exposed to Eurovision while I was living there. I remember the first year I was there people kept inviting me to their “Eurovision Parties,” and I was like, what in the world is that? Someone described it to me as the “Musical Super Bowl.” I was like, what in the world is this? It took a few years to really get into it, but it's a really beautiful event that celebrates the diversity of Europe. I love that all the countries vote but can’t vote for themselves, and some years politics come into play, as well, depending on various world events.
Americans as a whole are pretty unfamiliar with Eurovision. When thinking about the score of the film, what did you want audiences to take away or understand about the music of Eurovision?
It's all about big numbers that also represent the countries involved. It's a celebration of pop music and national pride for the countries who participate.
Is there anything you’ve learned from watching other musical films that you brought into the scoring of this film? How do you see this movie differing from those?
This one was pretty different than some of any other musical films…. so I didn't really have a reference other than the contest itself. We really wanted to make these songs feel that they could actually compete in the contest separate from the film.
What was the process like of creating music to match the personalities and personas of the characters in the film who are all also competing in Eurovision? How do they help further the narrative of the film?
The characters were so rich with various layers, and—after reading the script and speaking to David [Dobkin- the Director], Will [Ferrell] and Andrew [Steele] [the writers]—I was able to get a good grasp on finding their “musical voice.” So I approached the songs like I would for any big pop artist. Trying to write from their perspective and create a sound for each act that not only represented their personalities but also represented the countries they came from. I think especially a song like “Husavik” helped push forward the love story in the film. It was written from Sigrid’s [McAdam’s character] perspective. She loves music but she also loves her life, she just wanted Lars [Ferrell’s character] and nothing more. I think the song helped her character express that in a way that finally made Lars understand.
“Volcano Man,” the first song released from the film, has received a lot of positive reactions on social media, and within the Eurovision fan community. How did you balance the pastiche associated with Eurovision music, and create something that would also have widespread appeal?
The credit for the creation of “Volcano man” should go to Gustav Holter and Christian Persson. I called them up and told them we needed an opening number, to imagine it starting with Will’s voice doing a pulsing “huh huh huh” thing and build around that. I also gave them the reference of the episode of Friends where Ross sees himself as a serious musician! They ran with that and really nailed it! With all the songs I wrote or put together for this film, I made sure the melodies felt really strong. Because to me, melody is the universal language and if you have a great melody you’ll appeal to more people no matter how you “dress” the song with lyrics and production.
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga premieres on Netflix June 26.