17 May 2009

Anvil! the Teenage Years

I missed the Eurovision Song Contest last night. Actually, I didn't miss it in the slightest; not now that Wogan is no longer presenting the show in the UK, anyway. I only really got into watching it while at university, anyway, when a bunch of us could all gather in someone's room playing some Eurovision-themed drinking game or other; watching it by yourself isn't quite the same. However, it did have its merits (very few of them relating to the music)--I enjoyed the political voting blocs, for example, and the often flustered people in each of the countries whose sole job was to announce the points awarded by their country and yet who often managed to mess up.

I also like documentaries--also, mockumentaries, (dogumentaries? I just coined that one!), rockumentaries and, most recently, popumentaries, the latter being the tagline for Sounds Like Teen Spirit, the latest documentary on the cinematic block. Sounds Like Teen Spirit follows several hopefuls in the 2007 Junior Eurovision Song Contest--a contest that probably isn't on many British radars (given that we don't compete), certainly not mine. Effectively, it's the same as the real Eurovision except the contestants are all aged 10-15 and all write the lyrics and music of the songs they perform (i.e. some form of musical talent is required).

So, we meet Trust, the grungy band of 14 year olds from Ypres where the girl just wants to meet a nice guy who likes her and will fulfill her every romantic fantasy while the two/three guys in the band (it's hard to tell as they all have the same longish, scruffyish hair and the same ambivalent and/or self-deprecating manner); Marina, the 14-year-old singer-songwriter of the Bulgarian act, Bon Bon, who is like totally Californian in her accent and mannerisms (although her Buffy obsession is possibly a little too last season for California) and who hopes that if her act wins, her father (who owns "three bowling alleys and a shopping mall") will be so proud he will leave his lover and return to the family home; an incredibly cute and precocious 11-year-old Cypriot called Giorgos, who was bullied because he liked singing not football and who is, by turns, wise beyond his years (though perhaps not so much as his younger sister, who couldn't be older than eight) and very much 11 ("this is the fridge. This is where we keep the food. We spend a lot of time in here"); and a 13-year-old from Georgia who feels the heavy burden of trying to represent her country in a positive light so that it finally receives some recognition.

There are other contestants too, although we don't see so much of their back story: a scary, blond, Russian  girl with a mullet; an 11-year-old Ukrainian girl whose "sexy librarian" act raised some eyebrows (her costume, part of which gets stripped off, mid-act, was eventually edited heavily); and the very nice, very normal 13-year-old Bab, who was the runner up in the Belgian contest (she should have won, although she wouldn't have made such good popumentary fodder as she just seemed like a nice girl). The film is interspersed from time to time with soundbites from journalists covering the event and the coaches and parents (although pushy parents are notably absent; these kids all seem to really want to win for themselves); "at least he'll get 12 points from Greece," said one reporter of the Cypriot act (he did).

Sounds Like Teen Spirit is very much a hybrid of Spellbound and Anvil!, with a dash of This Is Spinal Tap (though very little of Drop Dead Gorgeous). It is very funny and the featured contestants range from being hilarious to sweet to talented to highly sympathetic. Tears from the contestants were always going to be inevitable and there were some poignant moments, although the kids were usually shown to bounce back well from the set-backs. 

I felt it would have benefited from an extra half an hour or for the film-makers to have focused on only three of the acts instead to allow more time for the film to be framed better. As it was, the final of the Belgian competition was shown first (and in a way that makes you think that Bab will win), before we see the contestants telling us their story and preparing for the competition and then, finally, the week in the glamorous Rotterdam (where the final was held)--for some of the contestants, Rotterdam sounded like the most exotic place in the world. The film was also interspersed with a few very brief, humorous fragments on the history of the contest and how while Europeans used to fight a lot, now they make music, not war, but I'm not sure they added much to the film and its structure certainly wasn't its strong point.

Watching the movie did seem to bear quite a tangible relationship with watching Eurovision. Firstly, because the voting was the best bit of the TV show and we only saw a few, tense minutes in the film. Secondly, because some of the kids really could sing in the film whereas "ability to sing" seems fairly optional in the adult contest where often, the "best" act will win rather than the best song or the best singer. Thirdly, because you get to know the kids in the movie and find they are actually pretty likable; I'm not sure I could say the same about the adult Eurovision contestants. Like the adult contest, though, it's not usually the act with the best song or the best voice(s) that wins, although the "Since Junior Eurovision..." subtitles at the end do reassure us that the good ones have made moves towards a career in music since the contest, which, ultimately, will do them a lot more good than winning the perspex trophy awarded by Junior Eurovision.

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