Film Review: Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

In 2018, two years into the presidency of Donald Trump, a time of deepening division and despair among liberal Westerners, American speculative fiction author Catherynne M. Valente released a novel called Space Opera in which a washed-up glam rock superstar named Decibel Jones competes in an intergalactic version of Eurovision in order to save humanity from annihilation. The novel was arguably Valente’s biggest success to date, earning her a Hugo nomination, a film deal and much wider recognition in the fandom than she’d previously achieved.

2018 was also the year when American comedian and actor Will Ferrell began work on Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, a straight-to-Netflix feature film starring Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as an Icelandic musical duo who, through a combination of unlikely circumstance and outright political shenanigans, find themselves representing their country at, well, Eurovision. This, too, was something of a surprise success when it finally came out in 2020, in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic: thanks largely to a campaign by author Seanan McGuire, it was actually nominated for a Hugo award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, on the strength of a couple of minor speculative elements and, one suspects, its thematic links with Space Opera.

Despite some pretty hokey romance-movie assumptions – like the default heterosexuality that sees someone like Will Ferrell’s Lars ending up with the apparently much younger Sigrit (his bandmate, played by McAdams), without any real explanation as to why they like each other In That Way – the film is actually genuinely quite delightful. Ferrell and McAdams convey a kind of bumbling homespun charm that makes it more or less impossible not to root for their characters: Sigrit’s half-sincere belief in elves is a nice touch, as is the possible-but-never-confirmed existence of those elves – it’s a little oddball/magical-realist in a way I’ve not seen before in a commercial film, lending a sort of gentle earnestness to The Story of Fire Saga that grounds its camper, glitzier moments, like the vertiginous scene where a posse of former Eurovision contestants join Lars and Sigrit in performing a mash-up of pop hits at a decadent private party.

The film’s ending is also nicely done: like Valente’s novel, it avoids the cliched narrative trap of suggesting that passion alone is enough to win Eurovision, instead opting for a quieter resolution that emphasises the communal value of music, its power to bring people together in joy. It’s a choice that gets to the heart of why I think these stories are popular: in times when so much is uncertain, it’s a pleasure to plunge into these glamorous, over-the-top, larger-than-life worlds; to glory in the unashamedly, unironically heartfelt joy of just singing together, celebrating and listening to music together. The Story of Fire Saga is ridiculous, of course. But that’s why it’s good.

Review: How to Be Famous

How to Be FamousDolly Wilde, the heroine of Times columnist Caitlin Moran’s third novel How to Be Famous, is an alter ego twice over. Firstly, and most overtly, she’s the drinking, partying, devil-may-care persona of teen music journalist Johanna Morrigan, who in Moran’s earlier novel How to Build a Girl moved from depressed Wolverhampton to London in search of fame and fortune. In How to Be Famous, Johanna/Dolly, now well-established in the music scene, befriends a fierce feminist singer named Suzanne, attempts to deal with the fact that her father is spending much of his time stoned in her London flat, and faces some good old-fashioned 90s chauvinism when a jilted comedian releases a sex tape in an act of revenge.

Less obviously – but not much less obviously – Dolly is also a stand-in for Moran herself. Like Johanna, Moran grew up on benefits in Wolverhampton and left for London to pursue a career in music journalism at the age of 18. She claims, nevertheless, that How to Build a Girl and How to Be Famous are not autobiographical – a claim that might be more convincing if Johanna’s voice were not so relentlessly polemical. How to Be Famous does have some trenchant (if not particularly original) things to say about feminism, but the way that it says them is declamatory and didactic: there are whole passages (including a series of articles Dolly writes about teenage fannishness) that could come straight from one of Moran’s columns.

It has to be said that this isn’t wholly aesthetically ineffective: Moran’s a well-paid writer for a reason, and her prose is rhetorically well-structured, with a strong ear for rhythm and sound. Too, Johanna is an attractively adventurous character, her fanciful gothpunk facade concealing highly relatable feelings of insecurity and anxiety. But nowhere is it subtle; and even in her insecurity Johanna is somehow too easy a character, a stereotypical Heroine Facing the Forces of Misogyny. How to Be Famous is a fun enough read, but as a study of sexism historical and contemporary it doesn’t quite satisfy: I’d like more nuance, more care and, most pressingly, more intersectionality.

Film Review: Cats

Tom Hooper’s Cats, which we watched with a friend over Zoom in the early stages of lockdown, when we were young and full of hope, is one of those things that defies all logic, laws of physics and critical analysis. Its protagonist is a young cat called Victoria who’s abandoned by her humans and thrown on the tender mercies of the Big Smoke; she meets a gang of cats preparing for the legendary Jellicle Ball, at which one of them will be chosen to ascend (literally) to a new life. It’s a slender thread on which to hang two hours of musical theatre, as each cat introduces themselves to Victoria and sings the song they intend to perform at the Jellicle Ball – most of them poems from T.S. Eliot’s children’s collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, set to music with varying degrees of success.

Of course this is all based on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage show of the same name, but since my experience of that is limited to playing “Memory” very badly on the piano as a teenager, I can’t say whether the film’s hallucinogenic qualities are inherited or startlingly original. I can say that this is, unsurprisingly, a bad film. I don’t necessarily mean in the sense that it is plotless, or that the CGI that turns its big-name actors (Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift…) into giant cats with human faces is both ludicrous and vaguely horrifying; although both are true, they are both kind of…features rather than bugs, the things that make Cats what it is. No, what makes it a film that doesn’t work even on its own terms is the songs.

Look, this is a musical, right? Musicals rely on the emotion and sense of atmosphere that music is so good at providing. Especially a musical like Cats, which is not really about anything; it needs that music to provide emotional meaning where there is no semantic meaning. But vast stretches of the film are not even entertainingly bad but actively boring because: fifty per cent of the cast cannot sing; those songs that are competently sung are arranged so as to drain them of any musical interest whatsoever; and the CGI renders the choreography of ninety per cent of the songs airless and uninspiring, obscuring as it does the human effort of the actors involved. It’s like watching Fortnite characters dance: it might be nifty but you don’t want to spend two hours doing it.

I cannot name a single catchy song from the Cats film. Apart from “Macavity”, and I already knew that one. Even the numbers that should be fun – “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer”, anyone? – are disappointingly affectless. The travesty of Cats is not that it’s campy, contentless and commercialised – it’s that it’s boring, as no musical about singing animals should be.

Film Review: Fyre

We’ve all heard about Fyre Festival by now, but just in case: once upon a time, two years ago, one Billy McFarland, in partnership with rapper Ja Rule, convinced a lot of mostly ordinary middle-class professionals to part with large amounts of money in exchange for the festival experience of a lifetime: a holiday on a Bahamian beach, gourmet food, luxury villas and charter flights provided, with major bands like Blink 182 headlining.

The whole thing was a massive disaster. McFarland had no experience of running a festival, and several hundred people turned up in Great Exuma to find disaster-relief tents, sad cheese sandwiches, no music and no immediate way of returning home. (The charter flights stopped coming when everyone realised the scale of the cock-up.) More seriously, the organisers decided to ply attendees with free alcohol to distract them from the realities of the situation, and there was nothing like enough water available for several hundred drunk people in Bahamian heat.

It’s compelling stuff, the kind of thing that’ll send you down an internet black hole if you let it, seeking out all the gory details. Hence Netflix’s documentary Fyre, which came out a couple of months ago. It splices together talking heads from various levels of the organising team with footage from the “event” itself to look at how Fyre Festival evolved from a fantasy into a flawed, then failed, project. There’s no interview with McFarland himself, or Ja Rule, which feels…appropriate, in a way. These men put a large number of people in real physical danger and relieved a much larger number of their money. Do we really need to hear their side of the story?

What Fyre does have, though, is a lot of executives frantically trying to make excuses for themselves. It seems that anyone with an ounce of decency and/or professionalism left the project early on, when it became clear that no-one up the chain was managing anything or listening to major concerns about things like, say, infrastructure on a remote island. So you have to wonder about the people who stayed – who are, in this documentary, engaged in some frantic backpedalling, busily blaming McFarland for the fiasco while apparently blithely unaware of the damage they themselves have done in enabling him to continue with the project as it spiralled out of control.

Which, nevertheless, makes this an amusingly meta piece. Who can tell what’s true and what’s just image protection? It’s a question Fyre Festival attendees might well have asked themselves, given the promises made in the extraordinarily effective social media promotion campaign for the event.

And Fyre, fun though it is, proves as unable to fulfil its potential as the eponymous festival. Like all schadenfreude, it scratches an itch but doesn’t satisfy; there’s always the urge for more gossip, more scandal, more of some platonic “truth” that is in actual fact inaccessible. It comes from the same unhealthy, aspirational, insubstantial culture of oversharing and overselling that made Fyre Festival in the first place.

Review: White Tears

At last! A Tournament of Books contender that I don’t hate!

Well now, that’s a little unfair. I like Ruth Ozeki’s work, and Station Eleven is lovely, and I really enjoyed thinking about Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko. Bu-ut, generally, the people who follow and read along with the ToB are looking for different things in their reading than I am. As a case in point, Hari Kunzru’s White Tears, which I think is doing unusual and important work, didn’t make it out of the first round of this year’s Tournament, despite a relatively high seeding, which means my memory has apparently fabricated a rich vein of discussion about it. (The ToB is possibly the only place on the internet where it’s not only safe but actually productive to read the comments.)

Anyway. The very fact that White Tears made it into the ToB in the first place means that, although it draws on genre elements, it falls squarely into the Literary camp: it relies more on affect than plot to generate meaning. But a bare-bones plot summary might go something like this.

The novel follows two young white men, astronomically wealthy Carter and un-wealthy, unworldly Seth. Carter draws impressionable, eager-to-please Seth down with him into the depths of an appropriative obsession with Black music, a search for a spurious “authenticity” which they think the Black people they actually meet in college lack. Together, they form a production company specialising in creating this “authentic” sound for (mostly white) musicians, using the substantial library of original 1920s records Carter has put together. Things take a sinister turn, however, when Carter releases online a blues track put together by Seth out of a couple of enigmatic recordings he’s made while walking the city; Carter passes the song off as genuine, claiming that it’s by an artist named Charlie Shaw. An ex-collector reveals that Charlie Shaw was in fact a real Black artist – and decades of systematic racism, oppression and appropriation literally come back to haunt Carter and Seth.

Literally: a couple of commenters on the one ToB judgement White Tears did manage wanted to know what “really happens” towards the end of the book, when Seth apparently experiences flashes from the life of Charlie Shaw and possibly other Black victims of institutional racism. Kunzru also sets up a couple of murder mysteries that never get solved comprehensively, at least not in the way we’d expect from the detective-story traditions he draws on. I think that asking what literally happens misses Kunzru’s point here, or is, rather, the exact opposite of Kunzru’s point: these flashbacks, these lacunae, deliberately disturb the “logical”, “rational” surface of the text, the level on which we can rationalise out motives and psychologies and chains of cause and effect. They, precisely, haunt the text, as the spectre of racism haunts America. The novel isn’t interested in logical, rational explanations because it’s not interested in allowing us to construct racism and appropriation as logical, rational responses.

There is something here, too, that’s to do with artistic and narrative erasure. On the most obvious level, Carter and Seth are erasing Black artists, and the cultural tragedy their work is rooted in, by appropriating their “authenticity” for their own profit. (It’s worth noting here that Carter’s family has made their fortune off Black labour and Black lives.) So the novel eschews conventional narrative solutions as a way of performing this erasure: Charlie Shaw, the brilliant young artist, is denied the narrative arc that would (and, under the terms of the novel, should) bring him to fame, fortune and recognition by a system that exploits his labour and life: his career is derailed before it’s even begun by white capitalists who refuse to acknowledge his humanity.

I wonder if my not minding the novel’s refusal to provide logical explanations has to do with genre reading protocols? While it refers to our murder mystery expectations only to subvert them, it’s also clearly drawing on horror tropes to frame its discussion of racism and appropriation – and I suspect that not fully understanding a text on a rational level bothers readers of speculative literature (including horror) less than it does readers who primarily favour mimetic litfic. Or maybe that’s a gross simplification of people’s actual reading habits; I don’t know. In any case, I think this ghost story/murder mystery/Literary novel is a really effective way of laying bare the connections between the slave trade, institutional racism and oppression and cultural appropriation, and the utter savagery of those systems.

Review: Hamilton: The Revolution

Not a review of The Real Thing in the real Victoria Palace theatre, although I will get round to doing that some day when I’ve sorted out all my Emotions about it; no, these are just some notes about the gorgeous deckle-edged hardback that is the theatrical equivalent of a making of documentary.

It’s not just a pretty coffee-table book, though it certainly is that: as well as a full libretto annotated by Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s got a series of thirty-two essays on everything from costumes to choreography, a whistle-stop backstage tour of how Hamilton got made, as well as full-page, full-colour illustrations of the original (American) cast doing their thing (printed on heavy matt paper rather than the usual gloss, which doesn’t affect the photographs as much as you’d think it would).

Which all means that it’s well worth reading for a Hamilton fan, in the sense that it has actual real content that people have spent time and care producing, and it’s fascinating in the way that theatre always is. If anything, I would have liked more, but then that was probably inevitable.

It can be a bit over-the-top. It talks about Hamilton as if it’s the Second Coming. Which. I mean, Hamilton is, like, amazing, and cleverer than any musical has any right to be, and very successful, but I’m sceptical of claims that it changes the face of theatre or anything like that. Race-bending was a thing before Hamilton. Gilbert and Sullivan set clever wordplay to music a century or so before Lin-Manuel Miranda was born. Hamilton misrepresents history (George Washington was a slaver and a racist, as I keep telling anyone who’ll listen), under-characterises its women and has no queer representation. And those are only the flaws that annoy me most.

But I can hardly blame the book for overlooking them. It’s a companion book, after all, not a critical study (though, I would totally read one of those). And it is very lovely. I shall stroke it, and treasure it, and look at the pretty pictures.

Film Review: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Probably it will surprise nobody to know that Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again occupies basically the same place in the world as the original Mamma Mia. It is an excuse for some moderately famous faces to have a wonderful time singing the cheesiest songs in the world and hanging out on a Greek island, and for audiences around the world to have a jolly time watching them.

I’m not convinced that Mamma Mia actually needed a sequel, but the profit-driven logics of late capitalism are inescapable, and so here we are.

The story opens ten years after the events of the first film. Donna has died recently, in a non-specific manner. Her daughter Sophie is about to open the hotel that was Donna’s dream, while having some romantic drama with her hunky husband Skye, who wants to take a permanent job in America, which is not part of Sophie’s life plans at all, at all. Meanwhile, in a series of flashbacks, we learn how Sophie came to have three fathers – that is, how Young Donna slept with three different men around the same time and ended up pregnant.

Like its predecessor, Here We Go Again wants to be a kind film, a film that embraces the wide weird quirkiness of humanity and sings “I Have a Dream” softly into its ear like a lullaby. The first film is one that doesn’t judge its female heroine for being a single mother with a sexual past; it’s one that embraces the possibility of having multiple fathers; one where an old woman flings aside her burden to go join in a Bacchanalian parade of women all singing “Dancing Queen”. It even has a gay character. Like, it’s a soft-focus, peace-and-love kind of inclusivity, but even that was unusual in 2008: a blockbuster film that actually treated women like people with their own subjectivities and messy histories and agency.

It’s 2018 now. Things have moved on a bit. Here We Go Again does stuff that maybe looks a bit more radical, but the actual narrative structure doesn’t bear it out. Structurally, it’s a much more conservative story than the first film was.

A micro-example: in the opening number it’s revealed that Donna is bi. Yay, bi representation! Sadly, the opening number is “When I Kissed the Teacher”, and it appears that Young Donna had a relationship with a female tutor at Oxford. Which everyone is fine about, because free love, youthful experimentation, whatever, yay, colourful costumes and fabulous dance moves! Like. Not to be a party pooper, but can we maybe not trivialise inappropriate teacher-pupil relationships in the same breath as announcing that a beloved character is queer? K. Thanks.

Later on, there’s a big dance scene (choreographed to “Waterloo”, no less), which features a wheelchair user and a gay couple among many others. These are nice touches! But they are only touches. These are only backing dancers. It’s not like there are any disabled characters with speaking lines; and as for queer representation, well, we hear nothing else about Donna’s queerness, and the only nod to Harry’s sexuality is a brief flirtation with a fisherman.

The big structural problem with the film, though, is how much emphasis it places on the men in Donna and Sophie’s lives. To recap, the first film is very much about a mother and a daughter (again, think about how unusual it is to watch a mainstream film about mothers and daughters). Both Donna and Sophie are constantly surrounded by female friends who advise them, support them, sing and dance with them. Think of that rendition of “Dancing Queen” again: these are women embracing their femininity, and each other. The men of the film are very much interlopers; not unwelcome, but vaguely out of place.

Whereas in Here We Go Again, the focus is squarely on Donna and Sophie’s relationships with men. It’s interested not in the bond between Donna and Sophie, but in Donna’s three lovers, in Sophie and Skye’s marriage, in Sophie and her fathers. Donna’s old friends are there, but their roles are very much downplayed (in fact, Young Donna literally abandons her friends to go travelling and sleep with strange men); Sophie’s female friends are nowhere to be seen. When a new female character does turn up, it’s Cher, at the end of the film, playing a stereotypically uninterested grandmother who only relaxes when she runs across an old flame (whose name is, yes, Fernando).

I don’t want to pretend that Here We Go Again isn’t fun, because it kind of is. It makes for a cheerful evening out. It’s so relentlessly feelgood that you actively ignore its regressive politics. But I wouldn’t want to see it again; I think the shine would wear off pretty quickly.

(Slightly More Than) 50-Word Review: Don Giovanni

So I did the BP Big Screen thing in Trafalgar Square again in July, with a couple of friends. Don Giovanni is an 18th-century pick-up artist who sleeps with women and then abandons them, until he kills the father of one of his conquests and vengeance catches up with him. Gorgeous costumes, nice set design, lovely evening. But opera’s surely the least accessible of all art forms: no tune, to modern ears; and most people (including me) don’t have the knowledge and background any more to appreciate it. In other words: I don’t like it. And I’ve made my peace with that.

Review: 42nd Street

This review contains spoilers.

It turns out that 42nd Street is an older musical than I thought it was: it was first performed on Broadway in 1980 and seems to have been revived reasonably regularly since then. It’s currently on at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, and Time Out was offering £15 tickets, and, well, the rest is history, as they say.

It’s a weird musical, this one. The plot is perfunctory: it’s 1933 and Julian Marsh, notorious Broadway director, is doin’ a show! And every girl in New York wants to dance in it – including Peggy Sawyer, who’s never done any theatre work before but who, conveniently, can sing and dance like anything. And including Dorothy Brock, a faded star and terrible dancer whose awful Texan sugar daddy is bankrolling the show.

But no-one cares about the plot, which is just an excuse for musical number after musical number. There are lots of threads left messily loose, in a way that feels careless rather than purposeful: Dorothy’s secret lover Pat, Peggy’s dalliance with actor Billy, whether Peggy was in fact out of line when Dorothy’s ankle got broken. And that…wouldn’t be a huge problem (though I think I’d still be slightly dissatisfied with it), if not for the fact that the show is so consistently, outrageously problematic.

Or, rather, its characters are problematic. The show-within-a-show, Julian Marsh’s magnum opus, Pretty Lady, is problematic. Pretty Lady doesn’t seem particularly to have a plot, but it definitely puts a lot of stock in women-as-decoration: it’s got those ridiculous ostrich-feather swimming costumes that are a cultural shorthand for a certain type of Broadway extravaganza, and one of its biggest numbers, “Dames”, has a chorus that straight-up goes “Keep young and beautiful/if you want to be loved”, together with a dance routine involving women preening in hand-held vanity mirrors.

Clearly there’s an element of parody here. This is ’30s Broadway TO THE MAX! It’s ’30s Broadway as it never really was; ’30s Broadway as it lives in our cultural memory. Pretty Lady doesn’t have a plot because it doesn’t need to; we (where “we” is a largely white, largely middle- and upper-class Western audience) can fill in the blanks from our own assumptions about what ’30s Broadway musicals are like, even if we’ve never seen one. And ’30s Broadway musicals are full of self-obsessed pretty women, of course.

But, if it’s parody, then it’s not parody that’s doing anything useful; it’s not parody that’s actually interrogating the ’30s Broadway musical, or our idea of it. It’s parody in the service of nostalgia, which seems to me a rather dangerous combination. There’s an interesting moment at the end of Act 1 when Pretty Lady becomes the same as 42nd Street; the frame narrative and the story-within-a-story merge. The Pretty Lady safety curtain comes down, Julian Marsh announces in character that we can get refunds at the box office, the house lights come on for the interval. It’s a joke, of course. But it’s also a piece of recursive self-obsession: we discover that 42nd Street is, in fact, about Pretty Lady; and Pretty Lady is about a certain kind of ’30s-style musical; and 42nd Street is a ’30s-style musical. All it cares about is itself.

This all comes to a nasty head at the end of Act 2, the end of the show. Julian Marsh has convinced Peggy to take over the leading role in Pretty Lady after the ankle-breaking incident. She’s had to learn the whole part in two intensive days, and she’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Julian is unsympathetic. Actually, he’s a complete and utter bastard.

And, in between his hectoring and bullying, he kisses her.

The show gives us very little indication as to how we’re supposed to read this: she still has unresolved romantic tension with Billy, and the show ends very quickly afterwards. It’s a convention of musicals that kissing equals love, but Julian’s treatment of Peggy reads more Harvey Weinstein than Captain von Trapp, and I’m not at all sure that the show’s aware of this. There’s a shadow of a suggestion that, in fact, Julian loves the idea of Peggy as his leading lady; he loves her because she brings his show alive. So he too is self-obsessed. He becomes the symbol of an entertainment industry that’s turned in on itself, chewing up everything outside it (love; talent; friendship) to feed its own monstrous self-absorption.

42nd Street actually reminds me of the 2016 musical film La La Land. Both musicals are only interested in themselves, and both of them use the falsifying, reactionary light of nostalgia to register that self-interest. But La La Land at least made the world feel a little more glamorous and a little more romantic and a little more sad than it did before. 42nd Street was a lovely evening for £15: the dancing’s fun and some of the actors can actually sing properly. In particular, Steph Parry as Dorothy has a gorgeous jazz voice (and it seems she joined the cast as an understudy, which is incredibly impressive). But…it left a bad taste in my mouth.

50-Word Review: Space Opera

Space Opera, Catherynne M. Valente

A new Valente novel, and the second Hitchhiker riff I’ve read this year: humanity’s singing for its life in the galactic version of Eurovision. A meditation on what counts as sentience and the transcendent power of pop music. Fun and fabulous, but a little…slight for Valente.