Euro-kitsch, fame and growing up

Sounds Like Teen Spirit is an uplifting documentary about young starlets singing their hearts out for their countries.

Rob Lyons

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‘We got some badges made and there were a few left over’, said film director Jamie J Johnson. ‘Would anyone like one?’ He might as well have asked if bears defecate in heavily forested areas. A room-full of hands shot up. I managed to snaffle two badges, but the man behind me suckered me into giving one away with a sob story about ‘I didn’t get one’. In a moment, the film reviewers packed into a small screening room in London had turned into big kids.

The situation was a kind of mirror image of the film we were about to watch, Johnson’s debut documentary feature, Sounds Like Teen Spirit, which features kids trying to act like adults. But unlike with adults, there is no artifice involved. These are young people grappling with a host of new experiences and trying to make sense of it all. They are at turns funny, insightful and touching – and always endearingly sincere.

Sounds Like Teen Spirit follows the fortunes of aspiring pop stars from across Europe competing in the final of the Junior Eurovision Song Contest. For the uninitiated, the Eurovision Song Contest was first held in 1956 as a means of bringing a war-torn continent back together around something that involved questions like ‘Who’s got the catchiest song?’ rather than ‘Who’s turn is it to own Alsace-Lorraine?’ It also provided a jolly good excuse to test out the infant idea of pan-European broadcasting (hence the ‘Eurovision’ bit).

Nowadays, nobody thinks of Eurovision as a television collaboration. It’s simply a highly entertaining, annual cultural car crash which most of Western Europe has ceased to take seriously, but which the emerging countries of the East see as an ideal opportunity to raise their profile internationally. So underneath the fun costumes and bubblegum pop music is an undercurrent of international rivalry. Cross a TV talent contest like American Idol with a game of Risk in a fancy dress shop and you’re getting there. It’s popular, too. The organisers claimed worldwide viewing figures of 105million last year. You can also blame Eurovision for launching the careers of ABBA and Celine Dion.

In 2003, a version of Eurovision was created for performers aged 10 to 15. Until 2008, even the songs were written by the children. Johnson’s film shows the run-up to the fifth contest, held in Rotterdam in the Netherlands in 2007, capturing the moment when four acts – from Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Georgia – win their own national finals and then following the contestants through all the blood, sweat, toil and tears as they perfect their performances for the grand final.

In the process, we are charmed by four individual characters. I won’t tell you anything about Belgium’s entry, since the film starts with the Belgian final and we get to know the two main competitors well. Let’s just say that, in my humble opinion, the good people of the country choose the wrong act to go to Rotterdam – decent performers though the winners are.

Other stars of Sounds Like Teen Spirit I can tell you about include 10-year-old Giorgios from Cyprus, an all-singing, all-dancing wannabe Justin Timberlake. Giorgios wins the Cyprus final despite singing in the wrong key, but puts the hours, days and weeks in with his choreographer to get it right for the big night. At one point, he admits to being picked on at school – ‘they called me gay because I didn’t like football’ – but has the final triumph of performing in front of all his schoolmates before leaving for Rotterdam. While he’s a sensitive soul, it’s his little sister Eliana who delivers one of the sweetest moments in the film, declaring that she’d never really known true happiness until her big brother was chosen to represent Cyprus.

Fourteen-year-old Marina is a member of Bulgaria’s seven-strong girl group, Bon Bon. She’s pretty well-to-do by Bulgarian standards. Her dad owns three bowling alleys, one of which is run by Marina’s mother. But Marina’s parents have split up, leaving her confused and sad. Perhaps the most touching moment of the film is Marina wondering backstage if her dad will even watch her on TV when her big moment comes. At least that would mean, she reasons, that in some way he cares. Beneath the excitement of singing to an arena full of people and millions on TV, here’s a vulnerable little girl confused about whether she is really loved by one of the two most important people in her life.

My personal favourite was 13-year-old Mariam, a sweet, big-eyed, cabbage-patch girl from Georgia. The contrast between the comfortable lives led by the other three contestants and the post-Soviet grind that faces Mariam in an apartment in the town of Gori is stark. For Mariam, the opportunity of travelling to the West is enormous. Sadly, her mother can’t come with her as she needs to look after Mariam’s brother, so when Mariam struts her stuff on stage, friends and family gather round a badly tuned TV back home.

Mariam, who perhaps finds the whole experience more alien than the other featured children, captures the pressures of performing most of all. Having started out with an innocent confidence, the reality of facing the arena leaves her suffering a sore throat and an attack of nerves during rehearsals. But when she goes on to do well, she receives a call from the president himself. Eurovision, even the Junior version, is a big deal to a relative international backwater like Georgia.

While the film was being edited last year, Mariam’s family had to flee their town to escape the Russian invasion of Georgia. Beyond the petty politics of Eurovision are some important, and at times downright scary, historical changes that greet all four of the stars of the film in one way or another.

The great thing about Sounds Like Teen Spirit is that it tells these four stories in such a straightforward and unadorned way. Most encouraging is the way the kids mix so well at the contest, despite their differing ages and nationalities, free from the vanities and egos of their adult counterparts. This is a feelgood film that doesn’t feel at all manipulative; the children themselves, their personalities and opinions, are fascinating in their own right without forcing some hackneyed narrative on to them. Nor are these cutesy five-year-olds saying funny things because they are still ignorant; they are kids who are just old enough to start to grapple with adult problems, placed in a weird and wonderful situation – an international singing contest – for a few days.

So, go see Sounds Like Teen Spirit. It must be good – I’m still wearing the badge.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

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