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After multiple versions, the composers of ‘Husavik’ hit the high note

Rachel McAdams as Sigrit Ericksdottir and Will Ferrell as Lars Erickssong in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.”  (John Wilson/NETFLIX)
By Michael Ordoña Los Angeles Times

The makers of “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” always knew the comedy would climax with a song. They just changed their minds about what the song would mean, what kind of song it would be and what they meant by “climax.”

“In the first few drafts, it was supposed to be a comedic moment,” said Savan Kotecha, the soundtrack’s executive producer and co-composer of the film’s Oscar-nominated song, “Husavik (My Hometown).” The song ends with the character Sigrit, played by Rachel McAdams, sustaining an epically high C sharp. “Her mom would say, ‘You’re the only one who can hit that note.’ It was this magical ‘spirit note.’ And at the end, everyone was going to have this orgasm,” Kotecha said.

But along the way, director David Dobkin and co-writers Will Ferrell and Andrew Steele “realized the core of this movie is Sigrit’s journey. Rachel played Sigrit with so much heart, I think that also changed things. David realized it had to be a tear-jerker moment.”

Sigrit is the musical partner and best friend of Ferrell’s Lars, a wannabe pop star from their small Icelandic town whose quest for fame blinds him to her charms. When the filmmakers let the intended comedic ending became a more emotional one, the song changed with it. (“Toward the end of production, there were, like, 90 different versions,” Kotecha said.)

At first, said co-composer Fat Max Gsus, “it almost had a kind of Coldplay feel to it, which changed to being more film-like, more soundtrack-like. We changed keys a few times.”

“Yeah, when it was more Will,” Kotecha said.

“There was also a way-more ‘Eurovision’ version, almost a disco vibe to it,” said co-composer Rickard Goransson. “So it went this way, then another. We had the basic idea from the beginning, but I always felt that ‘hometown’ idea hit hard. ‘Is there a way to keep that ‘hometown’ part?’ ”

Kotecha pointed out that he and his collaborators, along with the likes of fellow pop hit-makers Max Martin and Shellback, are part of “a Swedish mafia, but I’m the Indian guy.” Kotecha and Goransson’s past collaborations include smashes for Ariana Grande: “Bang Bang” and “God Is a Woman.”

Gsus said his Swedish background helped with “Husavik’s” lyrics, a valentine to the characters’ Scandinavian hometown.

“I was imagining myself in Sigrit’s position, how she’s feeling about her hometown. I started thinking about mine,” he said. “When I went in my mind to Husavik, I started hearing sea gulls. There are a lot of sea gulls in my hometown, Karlskrona, Sweden, as well. The only thing we don’t have is mountains, and Husavik has mountains.”

“And whales,” interjected Goransson, referring to the song’s chorus, which contains the only lyrics that might fit the kind of novelty song the filmmakers probably imagined for the film’s original ending.

After some touching lines about realizing what’s most important to her, Sigrit sings of her hometown, “Where the mountains sing through the screams of sea gulls/ Where the whales can live ’cause they’re gentle people …”

“That second line is so widely misinterpreted all the time,” Gsus said with a jolly smile as the other two laughed. “The people of Husavik are gentle, and that’s why the whales can live there. But it definitely gets lost in translation; I’ve seen so many people writing about the whales being gentle people.”

The song also conveys character in ways that make the three laugh.

“It’s finally Sigrit’s moment to shine when it’s always been Lars” getting the spotlight, Gsus said. “She sings, ‘You want the world, all the neon lights and billboards …’ and he takes the liberty to steal the moment; he starts singing ‘Ooh, ooh.’ ”

When Kotecha was working on his first song for the film and they needed a female singer, a collaborator said, “ ‘My friend, Molly, is in town. She’s, like, a big artist in Sweden,’ ” Kotecha said. In walked Molly Sanden. “She nailed it. When everyone heard that, they said, ‘Can she do the other songs?’ She’s practically, like, an Adele in Sweden; she’s a massive pop star in Sweden.”

She performed Sigrit’s vocals, but as gorgeous as Sanden’s voice is, they had no idea if she could muster the “spirit note” for “Husavik.”

“The important part was to channel a huge, operatic feel, much in the way Roy Orbison ends his songs, that’s just so beautiful. We didn’t have any respect for how high Molly actually can sing,” said Gsus, laughing.

“I spoke with her today,” Kotecha said of Sanden realizing she could be performing at the Oscar ceremony. “She was like, ‘I’m trying to practice the note!’ ”

She’s not the only one for whom the nomination is a high note. Goransson said. “I was up at 5 to watch the announcement, and I just started screaming. Woke up my girlfriend. I still really can’t grasp it, to be honest.”

Kotecha said from Stockholm, “I was picking my kids up from school, like, 30 minutes after I found out. Then my 5-year-old got elected to student council, so I was a very far distant second place in my house yesterday.”