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Sounds Like Teen Spirit (2008)

 -  Documentary | Music  -  8 May 2009 (UK)
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A documentary about the junior version of the annual Eurovision song festival.


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A documentary about the junior version of the annual Eurovision song festival.

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It's Eurovision... But not as we know it.


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8 May 2009 (UK)  »

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Sounds Like Teen Spirit  »

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Save all your kisses for this one
9 April 2009 | by (London, England) – See all my reviews

So, hands up those who'd even heard of Junior Eurovision, "Europe's best-kept secret", until now? Unless you're the sort of brilliant maniac who 'does Eurovision' every year, along with your own wall charts, score cards and specially-prepared Eurosnacks, probably not. Let us not delay the introductions any further.

Cuter than Anvil!, harder hitting than Spellbound, this hilarious, charming and unflinching 'Popumentary' follows a handful of hopefuls from Sweden to Belarus, competing "for Perspex" (as debut feature director Johnson's indulgently amused, though never patronizing, voice-over has it) at the fifth Junior Eurovision Song Contest in Rotterdam 2007.

Joyously, there's not a pushy parent in sight. From the precocious to the plain misguided (just like the grown-up version), these finalists from 17 countries aren't mere puppets on a string but genuinely appear to be doing it for themselves. Children like 11-year-old Giorgos, a George Michael Mini-Me from Cyprus, resilient enough to survive his lousy song, tough enough to weather his classmates calling him gay because he loves singing, not football. "One day", he reflects, "I will thank them. I wouldn't be standing here if it wasn't for what they did to me."

They've composed their own songs too, albeit the usual Eurogum; there's nothing here to equal the towering greatness of Vicky's 'L'Amour Est Bleu' (an unjustified 4th place for Luxembourg in 1967) or Teach-In's 1975 winner 'Ding-A-Dong'. But, you know, they're *kids*, between the ages of 10 and 15 - even if they don't think they really are anymore.

At the world weary age of fifteen and a head taller than most, the Belgian quartet Trust give the impression they couldn't give a stack of waffles whether they get 200 points or nul points, breezing through the rough and ready riot of bangles and braces with the kind of cool detachment that only 15-year-olds can get away with. Will they be dancing on the night? "Isn't it clear...?" shrug the Scott Walker lookalikes wryly, "We are boys?"

Trust's big thing is to scatter Basmati rice over their tom-toms so that it all flies off dramatically in a shower of, well, rice. Just the sort of stuff to help their set go with a Boom Bang-A-Bang. But Trust may have already met their Waterloo during rehearsals. As drummer Laurens murmurs in one of the film's many Spinal Tap moments, "I think there's a problem with the rice..."

You really get the impression that Johnson could have swung his lenses in any direction and struck gold. Or children. Because children, of course, are funny by default. They are like drunk adults, uninhibited. So when they make like adults, it's even funnier - and sometimes disturbing. If Russia's entry is pure Little Miss Sunshine, 11-year-old Ilona from Ukraine has got everyone in a lather with her "sexy librarian" costume. There's Britney, there's Tatu, and then there's Ilona. As one of the judges says, "We have a little problem with her dress"- which pulls off, a la Bucks Fizz. We aren't told whether this was Ilona's sartorial decision or an elder's, but it's pretty worrying in either case. Diggi-loo, diggi-don't.

Meanwhile, some special, and especially memorable form of corporal punishment should be meted out to whoever dreamt up Belgium's De Dalton Sisters, God bless them; four scary clones in stripy leggings and bunches, whose truly toxic theme song ("We are the Dalton sisters, the Dalton sisters!!") will nest in your head for days like a plague of insatiable nits.

But like Wogan with a bad case of the huffs, Sounds Like Teen Spirit is by no means a laugh a second. Representing Bulgaria, Bon-Bon's 14-year-old singer-songwriter Marina speaks Beverly Hills-English, is obsessed with Buffy (the Vampire Slayer, not Sainte-Marie) - and hopes that if she wins the contest, her estranged dad "might come back, thinking he's left something good behind. If he's watching, that means he cares."

And while you expect tears at Junior Eurovision, what you don't anticipate is sweat. It's rare to see people perspiring on film, even in documentaries, because it doesn't look good. And to see children sweating is almost unthinkable. So when the camera catches those telltale rivulets on Giorgos' forehead mid-power ballad, it gives you a bit of a jolt.

This mix of the coarse and the kitsch, the grit in the glitter, lies at the heart of the film, a continent away from North America's overly contrived docusoaps. As Johnson sees it, Eurovision is simply another, albeit bloodless, manifestation of centuries of warfare between European factions, with the previous century claiming the highest body count since records began.

It is made abundantly clear that for some of those taking part, this is a once in a lifetime chance to draw the world's cameras, and perhaps a little peace, to their neglected, conflict-scarred homelands, Europe's shameful little secrets. As tiny, 13-year-old song-belter Mariam says, "If we are in the top five, people will know Georgia a bit more". Such faith in the leaders of the G20 is touching and appalling. And although all of the contestants are worth rooting for, Mariam, the impoverished war refugee, is the one you feel who needs your vote the most. Heartbreakingly, of course, there can be only one.

If you loathe Eurovision and all it stands for, you'll already be making your mind up about watching this. But, whether you're a friend or foe of the most watched non-sporting event on planet Earth, whether you're "wetting yourself with excitement!" as our Rotterdam host claims to be, or remaining defiantly dry, it is physically impossible to emerge from this film wearing anything other than a smile as big as an upside-down rainbow. Congratulations - and jubilations!

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