Years back I had a Croatian girlfriend and flatmate. In our exploration of the two national psyches, we found that we shared certain affectations typical of smaller European nations, namely handball—a sport larger countries overlook, making it easier for us to succeed in—and Eurovision.
Most larger western European countries care less about Eurovision—the UK among the least. It’s understandable—the country has such easy access to music exports that competing in a podunk competition beloved by weirdos isn’t the unique platform to Brits that it is to more emerging countries, such as Eastern European nations.
As such, it isn’t surprising that BBC arts critic Will Gompertz found reason in a recent review to contrast Netflix’s newest Iceland-set film, ‘Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga’ with Ragnar Kjartansson’s fine art. That’s the sort of thing that a fine arts critic would like.
PLAY JA JA DING DONG
The review was widely shared and derided in Iceland. The bold assumptions he put forth in defence of his fantasy view of Iceland and us Icelanders starkly contrasted our innate self-knowledge that we are, among other things, a shithole in the middle of nowhere with nice scenery, and an urbanity that really only started a few decades ago.
Will Ferrell’s Lars Erickssong, the movie’s protagonist, is a cartoon character of an Icelandic artist. A type found in many underpopulated areas of the world, he’s the single-minded weirdo that eschews the rat race to follow his passion, with limited success. We meet him first as an adult chasing his life-long dream to be a Eurovision star, but he hasn’t made it further than gigging in his home village. His attempt at introducing his neighbours to his Eurovision-esque stylings are repeatedly met with violent reactions—all they want is the German-sounding 70’s Schlager banger “Ja Ja Ding Dong.” Such is the fate of the small-society artist. Adapt or not, you inevitably end up broke and underappreciated.
His love interest, Sigrit Ericksdóttir (Rachel McAdams) is a faithful rendition of the Icelandic Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Although her relative lack of artistic independence reeks of Ferrell’s American-esque writing, she is, in a way, every Icelandic hippie, and even though her elf-conjuring in the countryside doesn’t feel familiar—she’d be at a cacao ceremony these days—she rings pretty true, all in all.
Pierce Brosnan’s Handsome Dad similarly manages to draw up a rougher, but truer caricature of men of that generation than I’m used to seeing in the media. Usually they are idealised self-portraits made by Icelandic directors and writers of that generation, attempting to make themselves a bit more interesting and a bit less repressed. More saving the day in the wilderness; less sitting in a bar being kind of a grumpy dick.
Much has been written about historical inconsistencies in the movie. A common take is that they were drinking beer in 1974, when it was only legalised in the late 80s. As the son of a sailor, I can attest that smuggling was a common business back then so beer wasn’t too hard to come by. The competition wasn’t broadcast live here until in the early 80s, but they showed clips from the contest on TV much earlier. Reading newspapers from the time, there was much interest in the competition. But if you zoom out, how fucking weird is it that we are fact-checking parodies now?
A favourite scene was the meeting on national TV attended by head of the central bank, promoting the idea that Eurovision is held in such high esteem here that every mover and shaker in the country would attend such meetings—especially the part where every mover and shaker is a grand total of 12 people.
The plot is dumb. The characters are two dimensional, and the portrayal of the Eurovision contest is wildly unreal and simplistic. In its essence then, the movie is a faithful, loving rendition of the contest, completely capturing its spirit. This movie, as well as the contest, is both garbage and amazing. Any heights it does not reach, it does not aspire to. Even the villain, Russian contestant Alexander Lemtov, is an anti-villain. He’s just a little bit in the way, but totally understandable.
Icelanders almost unanimously love the movie (with only a few stickler hold-outs doing a Handsome Dad impression on Facebook.)
So the only real blowback comes from the BBC. The Brits. The Eurovision haters. In their long-held disdain of this camp symbol of European unity, the seeds of Brexit are clearly visible. We’re none too pleased with their condescending defense of the imaginary Icelander, but in the immortal words of Alexander Lemtov, “Everybody hates the U.K., so zero points!”
Note: Due to the effect the Coronavirus is having on tourism in Iceland, it’s become increasingly difficult for the Grapevine to survive. If you enjoy our content and want to help the Grapevine’s journalists do things like eat and pay rent, please consider joining our High Five Club.
You can also check out our shop, loaded with books, apparel and other cool merch, that you can buy and have delivered right to your door.
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!