Winner takes it all

Pub date September 21, 2010
SectionFilm Features

DOCUMENTARY Before American Idol and all subsequent parasitical imitators, there was nothing on American TV quite like the annual Eurovision Song Contest. In fact, there still isn’t — that event’s multinational scope and emphasis on original (or at least regional) material is eons from AI‘s hits regurgitated by wailing wannabes.

Originating in 1956, the climactic broadcast is hosted each year by a different city. It’s been a wellspring of MOR trash, serving a mainstream demographic similar to yet distinct from U.S. tastes, less susceptible to pop vs. rock snobbism. Its most celebrated success story ABBA was the quintessential ESC group — glam, groomed, Top 40, and camera-ready — whose winning 1974 “Waterloo” launched their career as the Me Decade’s most vanilla disco-pop enterprise. Celine Dion also won, 14 years later. Let us forget that.

Other artists have been less stressfully forgotten — indeed, few Eurovision winners or competitors graduate to significant careers. Eurovision has increasingly been criticized as representing overly generic, visually showy musical acts. TV ratings have slumped. Yet in developing and/or post-glasnost countries, it remains a major cultural event.

Thus 2003’s Junior Eurovision Song Contest founding naturally hooked a wide audience still susceptible to the crack-like combo of kiddie cuteness and vaguely nationalized Vegas showmanship.

Brit Jamie J. Johnson’s doc Sounds Like Teen Spirit: A Popumentary arrives here as the opening feature in the San Francisco Film Society’s inaugural International Children’s Film Festival. A treasure trove of both snarkalicious garishness and sympathetic characters worth rooting for, it is an all-ages-access joy.

Johnson focuses on a few diverse aspirants in the 2007 competition, all age 10 to 15. They include tiny Tom Jones-in-training Cyprian Yiorgos Ioannides and Georgian belter Marina Baltadzi, whose advance toward the top (among more than 14,000 initial entrants) becomes a source of national pride. In this context, Belgian quartet Trust seem incongruous for being an actual band who play instruments, write their own songs, and require no dance or costume input. Most competing acts recall the Brady Bunch and 1984’s Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo — musically, choreographically, Spandex-sartorially — albeit with touristy “ethnic” twists.

Refreshingly, no kids here seem pushed forward by Lindsay Lohan-esque stage mamas or papas — their ambition is very much their own. No doubt most will cringe in later years at the pubescent portrait Spirit paints. But this good-humored documentary loves its subjects, and so will you.


Sept. 24–26, $8–$20

Embarcadero Center Cinema

One Embarcadero Center,

Promenade Level, SF

(925) 866-9559