June 22, 2018
Will Ferrell is making Netflix a comedy about Eurovision — but the song contest is about more than taking the piss out of Europeans
by Nikki Griffiths
Are you one of the 186 million viewers who tuned in to watch the Eurovision Song Contest this year? If you live in Iceland you almost definitely did: an incredible 95.3% of the population watched, despite Iceland’s song not even qualifying. But if you’re American, not so much: although the contest started in 1956, it’s only been broadcast in the US since 2016. This year, 74,000 Americans watched the grand final in May.
Things might be about to change. If you’re not familiar with the contest, which launched the careers of the likes of Abba and Celine Dion and is officially the world’s longest-running TV music competition, you soon may be, thanks to Will Ferrell. It was officially announced this week that Ferrell has got the go-ahead from Eurovision officials to write a comedy film for Netflix, set around the contest. He will write the movie with former SNL head writer Andrew Steele, produce it with Jessica Elbaum for Gary Sanchez Productions, and star in it himself. Which means, of course, singing. This is seen as a strategic move by Netflix to increase their international viewership.
Could this be a match made in heaven? A comedy heavyweight, Ferrell is known for screwball classics like Elf, Anchorman, and Blades of Glory (all over ten years old now though…). Eurovision is celebrated for its oddball songs, over-the-top costumes, and sense of joyous euphoria. Ferrell’s wife is Swedish and apparently introduced him to the contest, which he has been watching since 1999. He was seen at the final in Portugal this year, enjoying performances and speaking to contestants behind the scenes. So far, so Ferrell.
But there is so much more to the song contest, as the Chris West’s Eurovision!: A History of Modern Europe Through the World’s Greatest Song Contest shows. Eurovision is all about spreading messages of inclusion and diversity. It has a huge LGBTQ following and past winners include transgender Israeli singer Dana International and Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst. As we’ve written before, the contest was devised in 1956 as a way of bringing European nations together, aiming to repair damage created by two world wars. It was a monumental idea and a precursor to what would become the EU. In recent years, Eastern European countries’ participation has been seen as marking their intention to join the EU.
This year the contest was won by Netta Barzilai from Israel, with a song called “Toy.” In true Eurovision style, she rocked a quirky look and offered a weird, Björk-esque song that involved clucking like a chicken. I kid you not. Honestly, it was not the best song. But listen to the lyrics and its political agenda is clear: it’s a feminist celebration, calling for acceptance. She made a speech at the final, which the BBC reprinted, saying:
“It’s an empowerment song for everybody, for everybody who’s been struggling being themselves — struggling with their bosses, with the government, with someone stepping on them.
“I’ve been told so many times that I’m not pretty enough, that I’m not smart enough, that I’m not skinny enough to do what I want to do.”
The strong political vibe definitely helped the song rock to victory.
Will Ferrell be able to capture all of this nuance? I think not, because it’s not really very funny, is it? What is funny is a drag artist dressed entirely in what looks like silver foil, prancing around the stage slapping her dancers’ arses (Verka Serduchka, Ukraine, 2007); a posse of buxom milk maids churning milk seductively (Donatan & Cleo, Poland, 2014), a pair of twins singing painfully off-key for the entirety of their performance (Jemini, UK, 2003).
And that’s fine—this is a side to Eurovision that fans love—but it’s one-dimensional. I’m already cringing at the possible minefield of racial stereotypes we could get from this new movie.
Heidi Stephens wrote a pithy opinion piece for the Guardian yesterday, titled “Eurovision has come too far to be made a mockery of by Will Ferrell.” She writes:
It needs to come from a place of true affection, rather than ridicule. It needs to be funny because Ferrell is a brilliant observer of character, not because everyone’s chuckling at the daft foreigners and their silly singing contest.
Most of all, I want the Ferrell/Netflix take on Eurovision to capture the national pride, the commitment and passion of fans, and the unique and uplifting spirit of the Eurovision song contest — if it does, it will be a smash hit from Iceland to Australia. So on behalf of Eurovision fans everywhere, I’ll leave Will Ferrell with these immortal words from RuPaul’s Drag Race: “Good luck, and don’t fuck it up.”
Truer words could not be said. Not to mention that today’s Eurovision is a beautifully slick production, with lighting and sound to die for, complex staging, and perfect timing. And when it comes to performers, it is most definitely a young person’s game. Watch the acts and you’ll struggle to find many out of their twenties. So if Ferrell’s piece is going to be set in the modern day, he’d better pay heed and not give us some old-hat, harking back to an overexaggerated bygone era.
If Ferrell’s Eurovison is done badly, Netflix could end up doing the exact opposite of what they intended: pissing off a whole bunch of Europeans and entertaining US viewers who have no historic ties to the contest and so buy into the simple parody. A Eurovision fan scorned is a scary hell-beast indeed.
If you want a real flavour of Eurovision’s cultural significance, Chris West’s book is a must-read. It’ll keep you entertained and throw you some laughs, but it does not make a mockery of a sixty-plus-year-old institution that has a lot to say about the changing face of Europe.
Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.