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Sounds Like Teen Spirit

May 13, 2009

It starts quite worryingly. Two little Russian moppsies, the Sisters Tolmachevy, the previous year’s winners, are stopped by the documentary film crew and asked who their main influence is. Whitney Houston, they say, and immediately start belting out, “And I, vill alvays love you-u-u-u-u!” They are 9 years old. This is Junior Eurovision, and I’ll admit, on the first approach it’s bloody scary.

Enough of prejudice, enough I say.

You see, it’s not just easy to ridicule Eurovision, it’s second nature; but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right. Created out of a genuinely altruistic desire to bring a divided continent back together, the annual event is now the most watched non-sporting televisual event in the world. Bizarrely, it even gets beamed out to places as diverse as Australia, India and South Korea. Dogged by controversy in recent years, as a hotbed of petty rivalries and ancient nationalistic associations (otherwise termed, misleadingly, vote rigging) its biggest detractor has almost always been the UK*.

But Sounds Like Teen Spirit may just stand a chance of reversing the trend that our so-called sophisticated audience has developed of seeing the whole shebang as nothing more than an opportunity for cynical sneering. An almost unknown phenomenon on our little island, Junior Eurovision is massive on the continent, watched by nearly 25 million viewers.

Marina Baltadzi is a pretty 14 year old representing Bulgaria as part of her all girl group Bon-bon. She seems confident and happy, talking with a strikingly American accent she’s picked up from her International schools (she’s originally from Greece). She shows off her room, and her Buffy posters, clearly in awe of the monster-swatting super girl. Swiftly, it transpires her Dad has recently left and she now spends all her time with her Mom, who she feels she has to protect.

Giorgos comes from Cyprus and at 11 has won his national competition. He has a big voice and bags of self-belief, despite being bullied at school. His English is impeccable, and he talks movingly about his hopes and fears not just for the upcoming competition, but for his return and what the reaction to him might be when he turns back into a normal school kid again (“when I’m singing, I’m in a different world and I can forget about all the teasing”). His little sister adores him.

Trust is a group from Belgium. They’re gangly and uncomfortably adolescent; easily the eldest set of kids in the competition, they’re also the most accomplished (their keyboard player has played with national orchestras) and try to dispel that tag (“Trust do not need Eurovision,” says one of the press team) by acting around and being quite clutzy.

Mariam Romelashvili is a 12 year old from Georgia. She has to travel to the final in Rotterdam without her family and is clearly quite overwhelmed. At the first rehearsal she breaks down and can’t go on. But, she says, the country will be watching, so she’ll persevere.

All four threads come together at the final day, with the big show of course, but by then we’ve really got to know these kids and the things that drive them. No jazz-hands drama school nonsense from this lot, they’re there because they love what they do, but have no pretensions to anything else. One of the boys in Trust is asked what it feels like to be a rock star and he laughs it off, “Pop, maybe,” he smiles, shaking his head. Mariam is missing her mother but is soldiering on, knowing that she and her family will all be watching in the local club; Giorgos is just hoping he’s got everything right and will make people at home proud, even the ones who have picked on him; Marina just wants her Dad to be watching (“if he’s watching, that means he cares”).

And, despite all their worries and concerns and being hundreds of miles from home, they all go out onto the stage, with millions of people watching, and perform like true stars. The music isn’t important, really, and that’s OK because the songs are almost all indistinguishable from one another. The only one that stands out is the truly terrifying Ilona Galitska, the 11 year old Ukrainian entry, a girl so eye-poppingly confident she would make Miley Cyrus look like a shrinking violet. Fortunately, her Bucks Fizz reveal is deemed inappropriate before the cameras roll, and a more modest attire is adopted. But it doesn’t stop her putting in a frighteningly upfront performance.

When the music ends and the point scoring begins, the tried and trusted traipsing around to different national networks for the opinions of each participating country, the tension kicks in and after much nailbiting a winner is revealed. Most, of course, go home with nothing, but jump up and down with unbridled joy at 4th or 7th or 15th place; although there is one surprising national hero crowned. At the end-of-show disco, the real feeling of the entire thing is shown brilliantly; everyone is smiling and dancing with everyone else. Even the formidable Ilona is giggling away like 11 year olds should.

Sounds Like Teen Spirit is a fantastic little bit of movie making. Wading through the sludge of cynicism every year prior to, and following on from, yet another dismal performance, the UK might realise that here at least, there isn’t a hint of sour grapes to be found. But then, how would we know? The UK hasn’t offered an entry up for Junior Eurovision since 2005 (ironically when it came 5th, a placing that the kids on display in Spirit would have found astonishing).

I thought it was great from beginning to end, a real treat.

*as one of the biggest financial contributors to the European Broadcasting Union (without which the production of the Eurovision Song Contest would not be possible), it seems that going without a win since 1997 just won’t do for the UK, and there must be a sinister reason behind it. Arguments such as – for 2008 – choosing ‘the singing binman’ Andy Abraham, a runner up on The X Factor, as the UK entry, while those devious Russians chose a well-known singer with a dozen Top Ten hits across Eastern Europe (resulting in them winning and the UK coming last) do nothing to help the contest step out of the rather ugly mire it has found itself in…this side of the Channel at least.

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