Review: ‘Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,’ starring Demi Lovato

March 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Demi Lovato in “Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil” (Photo courtesy of OBB Media)

“Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil”

Directed by Michael D. Ratner

Culture Representation: The four-part docuseries “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” features a racially diverse group of people (Latino, white and African American) of mostly people in the entertainment industry, including Demi Lovato, discussing her life and career, particularly from 2018 to 2020.

Culture Clash: Lovato, who is a recovering drug addict, relapsed and had a near-fatal overdose in 2018, and she says that she no longer believes that complete drug abstinence is the best method of recovery for her.

Culture Audience: “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stories about how celebrities cope with addiction and trauma.

Demi Lovato in “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” (Photo courtesy of YouTube Originals)

Singer/actress Demi Lovato is well-known for revealing a lot of painful and unflattering aspects of her life, so it should come as no surprise that her four-part YouTube docuseries “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” has a confessional tone to it. The docuseries had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival. Among other things, Lovato goes into details about what she experienced before and after her near-fatal drug overdose at her Los Angeles home in July 2018. (She has since moved from that house because of the bad memories.) She also reveals publicly for the first time that she’s a rape survivor and how the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine led to her very quick and ultimately failed engagement to actor Max Ehrich.

Directed by Michael D. Ratner, “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” has much more disturbing revelations than Lovato’s 2017 YouTube documentary film “Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated.” There’s a trigger warning at the beginning of “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” because it contains graphic talk of sexual assault, her drug use and eating disorders. She goes into details about what happened before and after her overdose of heroin laced with Fentanyl.

Lovato says that the drug dealer who supplied the drugs also sexually assaulted her and left her for dead. She also reveals that when she was 15, she lost her virginity by being raped by someone she worked with in her Disney Channel days. Lovato doesn’t name either of her alleged rapists, but she says that when she reported her underage rape to adults, nothing happened to her alleged rapist. And she claims that she’s managing her addiction problems by drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. That’s not a good sign that she’s on the road to a healthy recovery.

It’s a big contrast to “Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated,” where her most personal revelation was that she’s openly living her life as a member of the LGTBQ community. (The movie had scenes of her discussing her attempts to find love on online dating sites.) Lovato refuses to label her sexuality, and she will only describe herself as “queer” or “not straight.” “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” shows that although Lovato claims to be in a much better emotional place than she was in 2018, she’s still struggling with the idea that her recovery from addiction means that she has to completely abstain from drugs and alcohol.

She admits to drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana “in moderation,” even though she’s said in many interviews that she’s an alcoholic and drug addict. Although she talks a lot about the drugs that she’s used and/or been addicted to over the years, in “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” she leaves out any mention of her alcoholism. And that omission is probably because she keeps repeating in the documentary that she’s tired of other people controlling her life and telling her what she can and cannot put in her body.

Ever since former Disney Channel star Lovato first went to rehab in 2010, at the age 18, she has publicly talked about her recovery from a variety of issues, including drug addiction, alcoholism, eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia), self-harming (cutting) and bipolar disorder. In “Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated,” she repeated the claim that she was clean and sober since 2012. And in 2018, during her “Tell Me You Love Me” tour, she was filming another documentary about herself, until her drug overdose resulted in shutting down production of that untitled documentary, which was permanently shelved.

“Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” has some clips from that never-seen-before 2018 documentary that shows a seemingly happy Lovato on tour. But as is often the case with entertainers who are drug addicts, they are very skilled at hiding dark sides of their lives. In “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,” Lovato says of her shelved 2018 biographical film: “In that documentary, I was allowing the cameras to see the tip of the iceberg.”

“Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” opens with Lovato backstage during that 2018 tour, in footage that was taken one month before her overdose. She’s on the phone with her mother, Dianna De La Garza. Her mother gushes, “Demi, that was the best show you’ve ever done! It’s only going to get better from here.” Lovato gives a small smile but there’s some sadness in her eyes.

There’s also a clip from a concert earlier on that 2018 tour, with the footage showing Demi being congratulated on stage by opening acts DJ Khaled and Kehlani for her sixth “sober birthday,” to celebrate her being clean and sober for the past six years. On the surface, Lovato looked healthy and happy. But in “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,” she now confesses that she relapsed later that night.

Lovato says, “I picked up a bottle of red wine that night and it wasn’t even 30 minutes before I called someone that had drugs on them … I’m surprised that I didn’t OD that night. I ended up at a party and ran into my old drug dealer from six years before. That night I did drugs I had never done before.”

According to Lovato, she did a dangerous mix of methamphetamine, Ecstasy, alcohol and OxyContin. “That alone should’ve killed me,” Lovato adds. She also confesses that during this relapse that lasted for months, she tried crack cocaine and heroin for the first time.

The first time she went to rehab in 2010, Lovato says that she was addicted to cocaine and Xanax. Years later, when she turned to crack cocaine and heroin (which she usually smoked, not injected), Lovato says in the documentary that she was trying to get the same “upper/downer” combination feeling that she had with cocaine and Xanax. “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” includes a photo identified as Lovato on crack for the first time and a photo of her while she was smoking heroin.

Lovato says she quickly became addicted to crack and heroin, but she was able to hide these addictions from most of the people who were close to her. Her immediate family members are interviewed in the documentary: mother Dianna De La Garza; stepfather Eddie De La Garza; older sister Dallas Lovato; and younger half-sister Madison De LaGarza. All of them say some variation of how Lovato is very good at keeping secrets and pretending that everything is just fine. “There’s a lot that the public don’t know,” says her stepfather Eddie, who is interviewed while sitting on a couch with his wife Dianna.

Demi’s parents got divorced when she was 2 years old. For years, she has been open about how her biological father Patrick Lovato struggled with mental illness (bipolar disorder, schizophrenia) and drug addiction, and their relationship was fractured for a very long time. Patrick died of cancer in 2013.

In “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,” she talks about how she still feels trauma over her troubled relationship with her father, whom she says abused her mother Dianna. Demi also says that she feels terrible about how her father died alone. His body, which wasn’t discovered for several days, was so decomposed that there couldn’t be an open casket at his funeral. Demi says that her biggest fear was that he would die alone, and she says she’s still haunted by guilt over it.

As for what led to her relapse and overdose in 2018, Demi comments: “Anytime you suppress a part of yourself, it’s going to overflow. Ultimately, that’s what happened to me in a lot of areas of my life. And it led to my overdose, for sure.” She adds later in the documentary: “I was miserable. I snapped.”

In addition to the issues of abandonment that she had with her father, Demi says she believes that the beauty pageants she entered as a child also had a negative effect on her: “My self-esteem was completely damaged by those beauty pageants.” Demi says that her eating disorders began as a direct result of the pressure she felt to be thin and pretty for the pageants.

Her mother Dianna says in the documentary about Demi’s childhood traumas: “I didn’t know that she needed to work with a professional to work through some of that.” In a separate interview, Demi says, “I crossed the line in the world of addiction. It’s interesting that it took a quarantine to work on this trauma stuff I’ve never really taken the time to dig deep and do the work on.”

To her credit, Demi doesn’t sugarcoat the very real and permanent health damage that her overdose caused: “I had three strokes. I had a heart attack. I suffered brain damage from the strokes. I can’t drive anymore. I have blind spots in my vision. When I pour a glass of water, I’ll totally miss the cup because I can’t see it anymore. I’ve also had pneumonia, because I asphyxiated, and multiple organ failure.”

What happened the night of the overdose has been reported in many media outlets, but the story in this documentary is told by Demi and some other people who were with her in the 24-hour period before and after her overdose. On the evening of July 23, 2018, Demi had been celebrating the birthday of Dani Vitale, who was Demi’s choreographer/creative director at the time.

Demi, Vitale and some other friends went out to nightclubs before heading back to Demi’s house. (The documentary includes phone footage of Vitale and Demi doing a choreographed dance routine on the rooftop.) Vitale, who is interviewed in the documentary, says that she didn’t know that Demi had been using drugs at that time.

That night, Demi begged Vitale to stay overnight at the house, but Vitale declined because she had to go home and feed her dogs and had to get up early the next morning. However, Vitale says as she was driving away from the house with a friend, she told the friend that she had a strange feeling that something wasn’t right. Ultimately, Vitale says that she didn’t stay because of her other obligations and she didn’t want to treat Demi like a child who needed a babysitter.

Demi says that when she was alone in the house, she called her drug dealer and spent the rest of the night doing drugs with him. The documentary includes blurry video surveillance footage of him leaving her house that morning, a few hours before Demi was found unconscious and the ambulance was called. Police later decided not to arrest him for his involvement in this overdose.

Jordan Jackson, a woman who was Demi’s assistant at the time, was the one who found Demi naked, unconscious and surrounded by vomit in Demi’s bed the next morning on July 24, 2018. “There was one point where she turned blue. Her whole body turned blue. I was like, ‘She’s dead for sure,'” Jackson says in the documentary. “It was the craziest thing I had ever seen.”

When Demi woke up at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she was legally blind for a short period of time. She didn’t even recognize her younger sister Madison, who chokes up with emotion in the documentary when she remembers that moment: “She looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Who is that?’ That’s something you never want to hear your sister say.”

Cedars-Sinai neurologist Dr. Shouri Lahiri, who sits next to Demi while he’s interviewed in the documentary, remembers that her oxygen levels were “dangerously low and trending down.” Demi also was put on dialysis to clean her blood, and the tubing had to be stuck through her neck. “It was like a horror movie,” as Dianna De La Garza describes it.

Demi is seated next to Dr. Lahiri when he talks about her hospital treatment. He says he didn’t know she why she was famous until about a week after he became her doctor, when he looked her up on the Internet. In the documentary, Dr. Lahiri mentions that he avoided looking up the information earlier because he didn’t want Demi’s celebrity status to affect his medical decisions about her. It’s kind of hard to believe that while she was in the hospital, he didn’t know for the first several days why she was famous, considering all the media coverage about her overdose.

Demi’s stepfather Eddie De La Garza gives a lot of praise to the hospital doctors who helped Demi with her recovery. But no one (not even Demi) is seen or heard in the documentary explicitly thanking Jackson, the person who found Demi and made the crucially important decision to call 911. Jackson admits in her documentary interview that she was afraid that calling 911 would bring a lot of negative publicity for Demi, but Jackson did the right thing and called anyway. Part of the 911 call is played in the documentary, and Jackson is heard asking the 911 operator if the ambulance could not turn on any sirens when it arrived at the house. However, the operator said that there would be ambulance sirens, and 911 operators have no control over that.

Demi says in the documentary, “I’m really lucky to be alive. My doctors said that I had five to 10 minutes [to live before I was found]. Had my assistant not come in, I wouldn’t be here today.” It would’ve been nice for Demi to directly and publicly thank Jackson in the documentary. If Demi did thank her while filming this documentary, it didn’t make it into the movie. And based on the “bare it all” tone of this film, a moment like that wouldn’t be edited out of the film if this thank you really happened while filming.

The documentary also shows that Vitale’s career and reputation were damaged by this overdose, because she was wrongfully blamed for it and wrongfully identified as being a drug buddy of Demi’s. Vitale says she doesn’t do drugs, but she was bullied and harassed by many of Demi’s fans who believed that Vitale was the one who supplied the drugs that Demi took that night. Vitale lost clients because of the overdose scandal. Demi says that her fans who harassed Vitale went too far.

In the documentary, while Vitale is getting her hair and makeup done for the interview, Demi is shown going into the room, hugging Vitale, and telling her that she’s sorry that she didn’t come forward sooner to clear Vitale’s name, but she was still in recovery at the time. Demi also says that she hopes that the documentary will help Vitale set the record straight that Vitale had nothing to do with Demi’s overdose. They seem to be friendly with each other, but it’s clear that Vitale doesn’t want to risk going through this experience with Demi again.

During her interview, Vitale tears up with emotion when she talks about the fallout from Demi’s overdose: “It was the hardest thing I ever had to deal with in my life. I just wanted [Demi] to live … I lost all my teaching jobs. No one wanted to bring their kid to an apparent heroin dealer teacher. I lost all the artists I was working with. No one wanted to deal with the drama … I had to rethink my whole future, all because of someone else’s decision.”

After recovering from her overdose, Demi says she decided she no longer wanted to have a team of people controlling what she ate or people checking up on her as if she would relapse at any moment. As an example, she says that for her birthdays, her previous management team would only allow her to have watermelon cake. After she fired that management team, Demi says one of the ways she celebrated her freedom from other people telling her what to eat was by having three cakes on her birthday.

After getting rid of her previous management, Demi asked Scooter Braun (who’s most famous for being Justin Bieber’s manager) to become her personal manager. Braun, who is an executive producer of “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,” is interviewed in the documentary and says that he was skeptical about representing Demi until he met her in person and she won him over. During contract negotiations, Demi says she relapsed and was truthful about it to Braun. Demi says she was sure that after this confession, Braun wouldn’t want to represent her.

But the opposite happened. Braun says that rather than distancing himself from Demi because of the relapse, he wanted to help her. He says his reaction was, “As long as you tell me the truth, we’ll work through it.” Braun also says, “She didn’t need a manager. She needed a friend.”

Demi didn’t get rid of everyone on her business team after the overdose. She gives a lot of credit to her longtime business manager Glenn Nordlinger and head of security/chief of staff Max Lea for helping her through tough times. Nordlinger and Lea are both interviewed in the documentary. Nordlinger says it was his idea to get Demi checked into the Cirque Lodge addiction treatment center in Orem, Utah, for her post-overdose rehab. Demi is seated next to Lea and Nordlinger during some of her interviews, and she often keeps her head lowered, as if she’s still ashamed of what they know about her.

Two other people who’ve remained in Demi’s inner circle and are interviewed in the documentary are Sirah Mitchell (a hip-hop artist) and Matthew Scott Montgomery (an actor), who are each described in the documentary as Demi’s “best friend.” Mitchell is also described as Demi’s “former sober coach.” Mitchell and Montgomery, who were not with Demi on the night that she overdosed, profess unwavering loyalty to Demi. They both say that they knew that Demi was doing heroin and other drugs in the weeks leading up to the overdose, but they say that Demi ignored their concerns and there was nothing they could do about it.

Mitchell and Montgomery seem to be among Demi’s biggest cheerleaders, but they also come across as enablers who will say what she wants to hear so she won’t cut them out of her life. For example, Mitchell and Montgomery make vague excuses for why they’re going along with Demi’s plan to drink alcohol and smoke marijuana as part of her “recovery” from alcoholism and drug addiction. By now, these friends should know that when drug addicts/alcoholics think they can handle drugs and alcohol, that’s still being in the sickness of denial.

As for Demi’s family members, they all say that based on their experiences with Demi, they know that an addict can only truly recover when the addict is willing to stop what’s causing their addiction of their own free will, not because other people are pressuring them to do it. Demi says that the first time she went to rehab, she was forced to go because she was told that she wouldn’t be able to see her sister Madison again if Demi didn’t get rehab treatment. In the documentary, Demi notes the “full circle” irony that after she woke up from her overdose, she literally couldn’t see Madison because of Demi’s temporary blindness.

Demi’s case manager Charles Cook is the one of the few people interviewed in the movie to warn viewers that Demi’s way of handling her addiction is not going to work for everyone. He chooses his words carefully, so as not to offend her, but it’s pretty obvious that he’s conflicted in endorsing Demi’s decision to continue to drink alcohol and use marijuana. Cook and Demi both say that addiction recovery doesn’t have a “one size fits all” solution, and Demi is trying to figure out what works best for her.

The documentary includes interviews with some celebrities who know Demi and have worked with her, including recovering addict/alcoholic Elton John. He is blunt when he comments on addicts/alcoholics who think they can still use their addiction substances as part of their recovery: “Moderation doesn’t work.” However, he praises Demi by saying: “She’s human and she’s adorable and she’s brave.”

Christina Aguilera and Will Ferrell also say good things about Demi. Aguilera says, “She’s just no bullshit when it comes to her spirit and her energy and her laughter.” Lovato and Aguilera teamed up for the duet “Fall in Line,” which was on Aguilera’s 2018 album “Liberation.” The song was also released as a single.

Ferrell says he was inspired to put Demi in his 2020 Netflix comedy movie “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” after seeing her emotionally perform “Anyone” at the 2020 Grammy Awards. The Grammy show was her first high-profile performance after her overdose, and she followed it up with another critically acclaimed performance at Super Bowl LIV, where she sang a powerful rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Clips of both performances are in the movie, as well as snippets of her performing on tour in 2018 and in the recording studio. Demi says that she wrote and recorded “Sober” while she was in the throes of addiction to crack and heroin. And she mentions that her song “Dancing With the Devil” is one of the rawest, soul-baring songs she’s ever written about her addiction. Braun says, “In the studio, Demi is in her happy place.”

Demi describes her brief engagement to Ehrich in 2020 as part of their whirlwind and unconventional romance. Most of their courtship happened when they moved in with her mother and stepfather to quarantine with them during the coronavirus pandemic. Demi and Ehrich dated for just six months before calling it quits. After the breakup, he went on social media and gave interviews saying that he was blindsided and treated unfairly by Demi.

In the documentary, Demi says that she and Ehrich probably wouldn’t have gotten engaged so quickly if they hadn’t quarantined together. And although she doesn’t divulge the full details of their breakup, Demi reiterates what she’s already said publicly: She says she found out that Ehrich didn’t have the right intentions in their relationship. The documentary has selfie video footage of a forlorn-looking Demi after the breakup, fretting to the camera that she won’t find anyone to love her.

Demi has this to say about her love life at the time she filmed this documentary: “I feel like I’m too queer in my life to marry a man right now.” She describes her outlook: “Life is fluid, and I’m fluid, and that’s all I know.”*

In addition to dealing with her physical health problems as a result of the overdose, Demi says she has the psychological trauma of being sexually assaulted. She has this to say about the sexual violation from her drug dealer: “When they found me, I was naked, blue. I was literally left for dead after he took advantage of me. I was literally discarded and abandoned.”

“When I woke up in the hospital, they asked if I had consensual sex,” Demi says in one of her documentary interviews. “There was one flash that I had of him on top of me. I saw the flash, and I said, ‘Yes’ [in answer to the question if the sex was consensual]. It wasn’t until a month after my overdose that I realized, ‘Hey, you weren’t in any state of mind to make a consensual decision.’ That kind of trauma doesn’t go away overnight, and it doesn’t go away in the first few months of rehab either.”

Demi reveals that instead of staying away from the drug dealer that she says raped her, she actually contacted him again when she relapsed after her overdose. And she says that when they had sex again, she wanted to be the one in control. Instead, Demi says this “revenge sex” made her feel worse.

And she also says it was history repeating itself because something similar happened with the person she says raped her when she was 15: “When I was a teenager, I was in a very similar situation. I lost my virginity in rape. I called that person back a month later and tried to make it right by being in control. All it did was make me feel worse.”

In the documentary, Demi doesn’t name her alleged rapists, but the drug dealer who admitted he was the one who supplied the drugs on the night of the overdose already gave tabloid interviews after he found out that he wouldn’t be arrested for supplying her the drugs. His name is already out there in the public. And in at least one of his interviews, he claimed that Demi was his sex partner in a “friends with benefits” situation.

As for the guy whom Demi says raped her when she was 15, she drops some big hints about who he is. “I was part of that Disney crowd that publicly said they were waiting until marriage.” She says in the documentary that this virginity image was a lie for her and her alleged rapist, which obviously implies that he was part of that “Disney crowd” too.

Commenting on how she lost her virginity, Demi says: “I didn’t have the romantic first time. That was not it for me. That sucked. Then I had to see this person all the time so I stopped eating and coped in other ways.”

Then she takes a breath and says, “Fuck it. I’m gonna say it.” She says that her #MeToo moment came when she reported the rape to adults (whom she does not name in the documentary), but her alleged rapist “never got in trouble for it. They never got taken out of the movie they were in. I always kept it quiet because I’ve always had something to say. I don’t know, I’m tired of opening my mouth. Here’s the tea.”

Just like many people with #MeToo stories, Demi says she’s going public with her truth to help give other people the courage to do the same. “I’m coming forward with what happened to me because everyone it happens to should absolutely speak their voice.” She also says, “At the end of the day, I’m responsible for my life choices and only hold myself accountable. And the last two years have been about me doing the work to identify and confront those traumas, so I can be my best self and truly be happy.”

The problem with these types of “confessions of a famous addict” is that they usually have the celebrity confessing that they previously put on a fake front of being happy and/or sober in public, but they were really miserable and/or relapsing in private. Then they usually end the documentary by saying they’re doing much better now. But it can be hard for people to believe that, when the celebrity has already admitted that they’re skilled at pretending that their life is better than it really is.

Demi says in the “Dancing With the Devil” documentary that when she made the “Simply Complicated” documentary, she was really miserable and pretended at the time that she happy. Is there eventually going to be another “confession” from Demi where she will say that she was lying in this “Dancing With the Devil” documentary too? It’s a vicious cycle where people aren’t going to know what to believe.

Another problem that people tend to have with these celebrity “tell-alls” is they usually come out at around the same time that the celebrity has a new project to promote. And it makes people wonder how much of this pain is being used to market something that the celebrity wants to sell. Sure enough, the documentary includes studio footage and video clips to promote Demi’s seventh studio album “Dancing with the Devil … The Art of Starting Over,” which is due out on April 2, 2021, the same week as when this docuseries’ last episode is released on YouTube.

Most addicts and alcoholics don’t get to profit from selling their stories. And there’s a lot of denial going on in the documentary when Demi, who spent years telling the world that she’s an alcoholic, now says she can handle drinking alcohol in moderation. Did she not learn anything in rehab?

Although there are website addresses and hotline phone numbers listed in the documentary as resources for people who want to get more information on how to get help for addiction or surviving sexual trauma, the mixed messages that Demi gives in her “Dancing With the Devil” documentary can actually confuse people. She does briefly acknowledge that she’s luckier than most addicts, because she can afford top-notch rehab treatment and a team of people who can get her whatever she asks for because she’s paying them to do it. But that acknowledgement rings hollow because she’s basically saying, “I know I can afford to go to the highest-priced rehab centers in the world, but I’m going to indulge in my addictive substances anyway, just because I feel like it.”

However, people who are not gullible fans can see the documentary for what it is: It shows the difficulty of overcoming addiction and how celebrities are surrounded by “yes” people who will say what the celebrity wants to hear so that they can stay in the celebrity’s inner circle. If there’s any meaningful takeaway from “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” it’s that if celebrities want to tell the world their truth, they should summon the courage to have people in their lives who will tell them the truth. And when it comes to addiction to alcohol and drugs, they can start with the basic fundamentals of rehab, which is that an alcoholic/drug addict isn’t doing enough real work to get clean and sober if that alcoholic/drug addict is still drinking and drugging.

*UPDATE: In May 2021, Lovato came out as non-binary, with identity pronouns “they” and “them.”

YouTube Originals will premiere “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” on Demi Lovato’s YouTube channel on March 23, 2021.

Review: ‘Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga,’ starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams

June 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (Photo by John Wilson/Netflix)

Culture Representation: Taking place in Iceland and Scotland, the musical comedy “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” has a predominantly white cast (with some black people, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An Icelandic male/female pop-music duo called Fire Saga aspire to on the annual Eurovision Song Contest, but they come up against naysayers in their home country as well as competitors from other countries.

Culture Audience: “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” will appeal primarily to fans of stars Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams, as well as to people who like good-natured satires of fame seekers and hokey TV talent contests.

Dan Stevens in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (Photo by John Wilson/Netflix)

“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” is an entertaining parody of the famous annual Eurovision Song Contest that feels retro and contemporary at the same time. The contest, which began in 1956 and is televised in numerous countries, has singers (usually performing pop music) competing from different countries around the world, as a sort of an Olympics for aspiring music stars. Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams portray the earnest but naïve Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Ericksdottir, a musical duo from Iceland who perform under the stage name Fire Saga. Ferrell, who co-wrote the original screenplay with Andrew Steele, is one of the producers of this comedy. And it’s one of Ferrell’s best movies in years.

Although “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (directed by David Dobkin) takes place in the present day, a lot of the musical sensibilities and costumes seem to be stuck in a previous decade, especially the 1980s or 1990s. The movie’s running joke, although not explicitly stated, is that certain parts of Europe are “behind the times” in pop music, because these countries rarely produce groundbreaking pop superstars on a worldwide level. Therefore, the performers who represent these countries at Eurovision are often ridiculed by Eurovision haters for looking and sounding outdated.

The trailer for “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” already shows that Fire Saga made it to the contest. Therefore, the first third of this 123-minute movie has no suspense, since it’s all about the obstacles that Fire Saga encounters in the quest to make it to Eurovision. Iceland has never had a Eurovision winner, so that immediately makes Fire Saga the ultimate underdog act.

The movie begins in Húsavík, Iceland, on April 6, 1974, when a pre-teen Lars (played by Alfie Melia), his stern widower father Erick (played by Pierce Brosnan) and other members of the family are watching Eurovision in the living room. The Swedish pop group ABBA is performing “Waterloo,” and Lars is transfixed. (ABBA won Eurovision that year and has remained Eurovision’s most famous winning act.)

As Lars dances along to ABBA performing on TV, he announces to his family that someday, he’s going to be a contestant on Eurovision. Several people scoff at the idea, including Erick, who says he’d rather be dead than to have his son sing and dance on Eurovision. Well, you know what that means.

About 45 years later, Lars is still living with his father, who makes a living as a fisherman, while Lars has a job giving parking tickets. Lars and his musical partner Sigrit (who is a music teacher) are longtime friends. They are singers and multi-instrumentalists, but they’ve been floundering in the dead-end local music scene. Fire Saga’s music “career” consists of rehearsing in the basement of Erick’s house and performing at a small local bar.

A running joke in the movie is that the patrons of this bar don’t want to hear any Fire Saga original songs (such as the trash-tastic “Volcano Man”) and would rather hear Fire Saga perform a very childish, nonsensical tune called “Jaja Ding Dong.” The audience is so fanatical about “Jaja Ding Dong” that they will often demand that Fire Saga perform it more than once in a single set. Is it any wonder that Lars and Sigrit think Eurovision will be their ticket out of this backwards town?

Erick isn’t the only one who thinks Lars is a loser and that it’s a delusional lost cause for Fire Saga to be on Eurovision. Sigrit’s single mother Helka (played by Elin Petersdottir) vehemently disapproves of Sigrit chasing this dream and tells Sigrit that she’s wasting her time with Lars. Although it’s not shown in the movie, it’s mentioned that Sigrit used to be mute as a child, until she met Lars and he helped her find her voice through music. And Lars and Sigrit have been friends ever since.

But now that they’re adults, Sigrit wants to be more than friends with Lars, because she’s secretly in love with him. Lars has the maturity level of a teenager (like most characters Farrell tends to play), so Lars is completely oblivious to Sigrit’s true feelings for him. As if to make the point that Lars and Sigrit don’t exude sexual chemistry with each other, throughout the movie, people who meet Lars and Sigrit for the first time mistakenly assume that Lars and Sigrit are brother and sister. Later in the story, when Sigrit and Lars almost kiss romantically, he stops it from happening because he says they can’t ruin their work relationship with a romance, and they have to stay focused on winning Eurovision.

But getting to Eurovision won’t be so easy. First, Fire Saga has to win the Icelandic Song Contest. Neils Brongus (played by Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), the president of Icelandic Public Television, leads a committee in charge of deciding who will be contestants in the Icelandic Song Contest. And he already has a favorite to win: Katiana Lindsdottir (played by Demi Lovato), from Kefalvik, a ready-made pop star with a powerful singing voice.

Neils tells his assembled team after watching Katiana’s audition video: “Without being dramatic, I think it might be the best audition tape we ever had in the history of the Icelandic Song Contest.”  (In the movie, Lovato sings the original song “In the Mirror.”) Compared to Katiana, Fire Saga looks like a bad joke.

Meanwhile, Victor Karlsson (played by Mikael Persbrandt), governor of Central Bank of Iceland, is worried about a contestant from Iceland winning Eurovision, which has a tradition of the winning contestant’s country hosting the contest in the following year. Victor fears that Iceland doesn’t have the infrastructure to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of people who would come to Iceland for Eurovision. And  he thinks that all those visitors during a short period of time could bankrupt Iceland.

Therefore, Victor is not enthusiastic about Katiana or anyone from Iceland winning Eurovision. When Victor expresses his concerns to Neils and the team at Icelandic Public Television, the rest of the group immediately shoots down Victor’s pessimistic prediction, because they think Eurovision coming to Iceland would be great for the Icelandic economy.

Lars’ dream of wining Eurovision becomes even more desperate when he finds himself homeless. His father Erick is having serious financial problems and has a choice to sell his house or sell his boat. Since Erick needs his boat for his fisherman income, he decides to sell the house.

Meanwhile, Sigrit has a quirk that Lars finds a little irritating: She believes in elves and thinks that elves can grant wishes. A recurring joke in the movie is that she visits a group of tiny houses built for elves and offers food and other gifts to the unseen creatures, as a way to entice them to grant her wishes. Two of her biggest wishes are to win Eurovision and to get together with Lars and start a family with him.

Through a series of unpredictable events, Fire Saga ends up representing Iceland at Eurovision, which is being held in Edinburgh, Scotland. How the usually hapless Fire Saga got to Eurovision wasn’t necessarily because Fire Saga was voted the best act, so Iceland’s support is lukewarm at best. Still, Iceland has given Fire Saga enough support that the country has hired a creative team to help Fire Saga win with Fire Saga’s chosen song “Double Trouble.”

The artistic director of this creative team is the very fussy and flamboyant Kevin Swain (played by Jamie Demetriou, in a scene-stealing performance), who sometimes clashes with the creative vision that Lars and Sigrit have for Fire Saga. During Eurovision rehearsals, Lars and Sirgit also meet another flamboyant character: Russian contestant Alexander Lemtov (played by Dan Stevens), a singer who flaunts his wealth and gives the impression that he will sleep with anyone to get them to do what he wants. Alexander’s Eurovision song is called “Lion of Love,” and his bombastic performance of the song includes a homoerotic choreography with male backup dancers wearing skintight gold lamé pants.

Alexander (whose frosted 1980s hairdo is reminiscent of George Michael in his Wham! days) immediately sets his sights on Sigrit to target as a sexual conquest. Meanwhile, Lars attracts the amorous attention of Greek contestant Mita Xenakis (played by Melissanthi Mahut), a singer who’s like a cross between Ariana Grande and Cher. Not surprisingly, some jealousy situations ensue.

In between all of the backstage drama and hilariously tacky performances, the movie has a standout musical ensemble number that takes place at a contestant party thrown by Alexander. In this scene, numerous contestants (including Lars, Sigrit, Alexander and Mita) do an extravagant medley of Cher’s “Believe,” Madonna’s “Ray of Light,” ABBA’s “Waterloo” and the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.”

Savan Kotecha, the musical director for this movie, assembled the team that wrote the film’s original songs that were deliberately kitschy. His background in writing and producing hits for real-life pop stars serves this movie very well. Among the hits that Kotecha co-written and co-produced include The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” Grande’s “God Is a Woman,” One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful” and Lovato’s “Confident.” The musical score by Atli Örvarsson complements the pop tunes without being overbearing.

The movie’s Eurovision performance scenes, which includes footage from real Eurovision arena shows, are among the comedic highlights of the film. Just when you think an act couldn’t get campier or more pompous, another one comes along to surpass it. Graham Norton (portraying himself) adds an element of satirical realism with his cameo as the sardonic TV commentator for Eurovision.

For “Eurovision Song Contest,” McAdams and Ferrell have reunited with their “Wedding Crashers” director Dobkin, whose previous experience as a music-video director is an asset for this musical movie. As for the singing in the movie, Lovato and Mahut are professional singers in real life, so they did their own vocals. Adams’ vocals were either her own or a combination of McAdams and those of Swedish singer Molly Sandé. Alexander’s operatic singing vocals were provided by Erik Mjönes.

“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” has plenty of lowbrow jokes that are actually laugh-out-loud funny. For example, there are several penis jokes and jokes about naked men in the movie. The jokes are crude but not offensive. In one scene, Lars comments: “I think of my penis like a Volvo—solid, sturdy, dependable, but not going to turn any heads.” Comedy is all about delivery, and Ferrell delivers the line in such a good natured, self-deprecating way, that it will make people laugh.

The movie doesn’t just poke fun at tacky aspiring pop stars from Europe. Americans are also the butt of many jokes in the film. During the course of the movie, Lars and Sigrit keep encountering the same group of college-age American tourists. Lars makes it known that he dislikes Americans, by taunting the tourists with the worst “ugly American” stereotypes. His insults aren’t too far off from how many non-Americans perceive Americans.

Make no mistake: “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” is by no means an Oscar-worthy movie. (Ferrell has never starred in that type of movie anyway.) But it is a cut above some of the stinkers that Ferrell has been headlining in recent years. At its heart, “Eurovision Song Contest” has a sentimentality to it that just might win people over in the way that Fire Saga earnestly tries to charm audiences—not by being the most talented but by being their unapologetically corny selves.

Netflix premiered “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” on June 26, 2020.

Review: ‘Downhill,’ starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell

February 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in “Downhill” (Photo by Jaap Buitendijk)

“Downhill”

Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Austrian Alps, “Downhill” is the story of a middle-class, middle-aged married American couple who go on a disastrous ski trip with their two teenage sons.

Culture Clash: The bickering spouses not only have conflicts with each other, but they’re also annoyed by a younger couple who wants to tag along, and they experience some uncomfortable moments with the Austrian locals.

Culture Audience: This comedy film that isn’t very funny will appeal mainly to fans of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell, whose comedic talents are stifled in a story filled with tension and misery.

Zach Woods and Zoë Chao in “Downhill” (Photo by Jaap Buitendijk)

“Downhill” is a perfect word to describe the steep slide into disappointment that your expectations will take when you think about how this movie wastes the talents of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell. The pacing of this film, which follows an American couple whose marriage has hit a rough patch, is like slogging through the snow-covered Austrian Alps, where the story takes place. Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from a screenplay by Jesse Armstrong, “Downhill” is supposed to be inspired by the 2014 Swedish avalanche disaster comedy “Force Majeure,” but that film had loads more humorous moments and compelling dialogue than what “Downhill” has to offer.

Ferrell has been in plenty of stinker movies before, but Louis-Dreyfus usually chooses quality over quantity when it comes to the movies that she makes. She’s one of the producers of “Downhill,” so this is a rare misstep for her. Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus play Pete and Billie Stanton, a long-married couple who’ve reached a point in their relationship where almost everything one of them does gets on the other’s nerves. They’ve taken this ski vacation to Austria with their teenage fraternal-twin sons, Finn and Emerson (played by Julian Grey and Ammon Ford), to have some family bonding time, with a small glimmer of hope that maybe the trip will bring positive feelings back into their marriage.

Hovering somewhere near the Stantons throughout the trip is an American couple in their 20s named Zach (played by Zach Woods) and Rosie (played Zoë Chao), who have an eager-to-impress vibe to them, as they try to latch on to Pete and Billie on awkward double dates. Pete knows Zach because they’re real-estate co-workers. Billie really doesn’t like being around Rosie and Zach, but Pete is more willing to tolerate them, even though the Stantons can’t relate to Rosie and Zach’s penchant for taking psychedelic mushrooms and Instagram selfies. Unbeknownst to Billie at first, Pete has invited Zach and Rosie to hang out with them. Pete will soon find out that the younger couple will wear out their welcome, as Rosie and Zach witness all the tension in the Stantons’ marriage.

One of the first people the Stantons meet upon arriving at the ski resort is the overly effusive Charlotte (played by Miranda Ott), who acts as if she works at the resort as some sort of concierge, but as the story goes on, it’s questionable if she really works there at all. At any rate, Charlotte is the kind of person who shares too much information about her sex life with total strangers, and she expects everyone she first meets to immediately become her confidant.

She fancies herself to be quite the seductress, but she’s so crude and annoying (such as when she brags, “I can catch a dick whenever I want”), that she’s not one of those quirky characters who ends up being endearing. She’s just unpleasant to watch, and Otto (who’s usually a great actress) isn’t helping matters by trying too hard with an unconvincing Austrian accent. This is not a droll comedy with eccentric and fascinating characters, such as in Wes Anderson’s 2014 movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

When the Stantons arrive at the resort, there are sounds of explosive rumblings off in the distance, which are ominous signs of what’s to come. That fateful moment comes when the family is outside on a café patio with several other people, and they notice that a large amount of snow is tumbling down from the mountains. As it quickly turns into an avalanche, there isn’t enough time for the café patrons to take shelter, and the avalanche goes barreling down and engulfs them.

The avalanche scene itself is very unrealistic, because the massive weight and force of all that snow would have injured and possibly killed several people. But the movie just fades to black after the avalanche hits. And then, the next scene is of the people who were on the café patio, looking dazed and getting up and brushing some of the snow off of their clothes. There’s also hardly any damage done to the café and surrounding buildings.

Billie and Pete have very different reactions to the avalanche. Billie is completely unnerved, while Pete takes it in stride and tries to enjoy the rest of the trip. In a meeting that Billie and Pete have with the resort’s manager (played by Kristofer Hivju), Billie demands that the resort make an apology for handling the disaster poorly. The manager points out that there were signs around the resort warning that there was a possibility of an avalanche. “It was handled perfectly,” the manager tells Billie, who ends up leaving the meeting in a huff, while Pete looks embarrassed over her anger.

Later, in attempt to lift Billie’s spirits, Pete arranges for everyone in the family to take a helicopter trip around the Alps. But when the time comes for them to go on the helicopter, one of the kids is missing a glove. Billie then has a mini-meltdown and refuses to get on the helicopter until the son has two gloves to wear. Pete yells that he’s paid $2,000 for the trip and he doesn’t want the money to go to waste. Billie yells back that their son’s comfort is more important and he needs to wear two gloves. The helicopter ends up leaving without them.

Push-and-pull scenes like that keep getting repeated in the movie. Pete tries to take his mind off of the avalanche and have a good time with Billie and the family. Meanwhile, Billie keeps obsessing over the avalanche and sees Pete’s post-avalanche behavior as flippant and uncaring about the family’s safety. Louis-Dreyfus tends to play neurotic characters, but Billie is a shrew who seems hell-bent on making everyone around her as miserable as she is.

One of the problems with “Downhill” (and it’s really noticeable if you see this movie with an audience) is that there are so many times when Ferrell or Louis-Dreyfus utters a line in such a way that viewers will expect it to turn into a joke. There’s a slight pause of anticipation, as if something that will make people laugh is coming next.  But that humorous moment never happens in scenes where people think they’ll happen.

People aren’t expecting this movie to be a slapstick or broad comedy, but during the course of the movie, it becomes very clear that Billie and Pete really are just wretched to watch. There’s no clever satire here, as this movie expects viewers to be stuck in this repetitive hell of arguments and resentment with very unlikable people. It almost makes the tension of “Force Majeure” look like an amusement-park ride compared to the slow-moving train wreck of “Downhill.”

Searchlight Pictures will release “Downhill” in U.S. cinemas on February 14, 2020.

UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, 20th Century Home Entertainment has moved up the digital release of “Downhill” to March 27, 2020.

 

2020 Golden Globe Awards: presenters announced

January 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association (the organization the votes for the Golden Globe Awards) and Dick Clark Productions (which co-produces the Golden Globes telecast) have announced the presenters of the 2020 Golden Globe Awards ceremony, which takes place January 5 at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills California. NBC will have the U.S. telecast of the show, beginning at 8 p.m. Eastern Time/5 p.m. Pacific Time.

Here are the presenters in alphabetical order:

  • Tim Allen
  • Jennifer Aniston*
  • Christian Bale*
  • Antonio Banderas*
  • Jason Bateman
  • Annette Bening*
  • Cate Blanchett*
  • Matt Bomer
  • Pierce Brosnan
  • Glenn Close
  • Daniel Craig*
  • Ted Danson
  • Ana de Armas*
  • Leonardo DiCaprio*
  • Ansel Elgort
  • Chris Evans
  • Dakota Fanning
  • Will Ferrell
  • Lauren Graham
  • Tiffany Haddish
  • Kit Harington*
  • Salma Hayek
  • Scarlett Johansson*
  • Elton John*
  • Nick Jonas
  • Harvey Keitel
  • Zoe Kravitz
  • Jennifer Lopez*
  • Rami Malek*
  • Kate McKinnon
  • Helen Mirren
  • Jason Momoa
  • Gwyneth Paltrow
  • Amy Poehler
  • Brad Pitt*
  • Da’Vine Joy Randolph
  • Margot Robbie*
  • Paul Rudd*
  • Wesley Snipes
  • Octavia Spencer
  • Bernie Taupin*
  • Charlize Theron*
  • Sofia Vergara
  • Kerry Washington
  • Naomi Watts
  • Rachel Weisz
  • Reese Witherspoon*

*2020 Golden Globe Awards nominee

Ricky Gervais is hosting the show. Tom Hanks will be receive the Cecil B. DeMille Award for career achievement, while Ellen DeGeneres will be getting the Carol Burnett Award, which is given to people who have excelled in comedy. The Carol Burnett Award debuted at the Golden Globes in 2019, and Burnett was the first recipient of the prize. Dylan and Paris Brosnan (sons of Pierce Brosnan) will serve as the 2020 Golden Globe Ambassadors.

Click here for a complete list of nominations for the 2020 Golden Globe Awards.