Best of 2020 (Behind the Scenes): How Eurovision's 'Jaja Ding Dong' became the song we didn't know we needed
A song came out in June 2020 that not only became a certified hit with meme after meme after meme, but changed the very energy of the world at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic plummeted the world into isolation. This is the story of "Jaja Ding Dong" from the Netflix musical comedy Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, as chronicled by the film's director, David Dobkin, and executive music supervisor, Savan Kotecha.
Icelandic singer Daði Freyr Pétursson, known professionally as Daði Freyr, received a flood of odd song requests over social media back in June. They all came with the same message: “Play ‘Jaja Ding Dong’!” Freyr knew exactly what they were talking about.
As the Icelandic contestant for the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest, the annual international music competition event, Freyr received an invitation a few days earlier to watch a film bearing the same name, only with the subtitle The Story of Fire Saga. The Netflix comedy, from director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers), starred Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as Lars and Sigrit, two starry-eyed musicians of the band Fire Saga from Húsavík, Iceland who compete in Eurovision, weathering the storm of hijinks and all the people rooting against them.
"I actually really enjoyed it," Freyr writes to EW over email. "I'm not such a fan of over-the-top silly movies as much as I once was, but there are so many moments in this movie that are funny to me. It's also pretty surreal to watch when I was supposed to represent Iceland in the competition this same year... I realized as soon as I saw the ‘Jaja Ding Dong’ scene that I would be seeing these comments all over."
Not even Lars and Sigrit want to play "Jaja Ding Dong." It's a singsongy bar tune in the style of German schlager music with a call and response. The crowd shouts "Jaja Ding Dong," and the singers answer with lines like, "My love for you is growing wide and long." At first, Freyr was "100 percent" against the idea of fulfilling this fan demand. "I think some people probably come to my socials just to say that and then leave," he writes. But then he became "so overwhelmed" with messages from people around the world asking him to play it. "It won't happen again. I promise," he adds.
Freyr's YouTube video of "Jaja Ding Dong" shows just how the catchy song, written for the movie by Swedish songwriters Gustav Holter and Christian Persson, made an impact. So did the film itself. The soundtrack for Eurovision broke onto the Billboard song charts (a first for Ferrell) with the track "Husavik," named after Fire Saga's hometown; local shops in Iceland began selling T-shirts that read "Jaja Ding Dong"; and a Eurovision-themed bar by the name of Jaja Ding Dong opened up in Husavik back in July. It also doesn't feel like a coincidence that, following the massive response to the movie, an American version of Eurovision was announced.
"It became its own thing," Dobkin tells EW over the phone of "Jaja Ding Dong." "It took on a life of its own and somehow became the signature of the movie beyond all the other great music."
Savan Kotecha, the executive music supervisor of Eurovision, co-wrote some of the biggest pop songs in recent years, including The Weeknd's "Can't Feel My Face," Ariana Grande's "God Is a Woman," and One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful." But the response to his work on this movie felt different. "With songs, they come and go," he says. "You have a hit and then two weeks later it’s not a hit. They are replaced by other hits. To be a part of something like this is a whole other experience, especially during the time it got released, the fact that it brought so many people so much joy. I've had some pretty big hits in my career, and I never received so many calls and text messages and lovely emails from friends and colleagues in the entertainment business."
According to Dobkin, there were two songs on the Eurovision soundtrack that were difficult to crack. One was "Husavik," the finale number partly performed by McAdams as Sigrit in the movie and fully recorded on the soundtrack by professional Swedish singer My Marianne. The other was "Jaja Ding Dong." Those three words came directly from the script, which was penned by Ferrell and Andrew Steele, as an ideal name for some kind of bar song. "I think we all knew what Andrew and Will were going for when they wrote it that way," Dobkin mentions. "It was just really funny."
Initially, Kotecha was just one of a half dozen applicants asked to submit demos for the job of writing, specifically, "Double Trouble," the original song Fire Saga would submit and perform throughout the Eurovision Song Contest. Dobkin and Steele were both so floored by Kotecha's work that they elevated him to supervise the development of the rest of the music. "Double Trouble" was that "perfect blend of funny and slightly super cheesy, but also [had] real hooks and a real melody to it," Dobkin says. "It’s a really well-designed song." That was what he wanted from the rest of the soundtrack: entertaining, but also reputable and believable. "We weren’t going full on 'Weird Al' Yankovic or even Lonely Island," Dobkin notes.
Kotecha, whose wife is Swedish and came with a familiarity of the actual Eurovision, worked on writing most of the songs for the movie. Where he couldn't, he brought in other songwriters from around the world. Kotecha spoke with a number of potentials to take the lead on "Jaja Ding Dong," but none of the demos were "quite right." "They were good, but it didn’t feel like it was one of those singalong drinking songs that's been around from the beginning of time," he said.
"There were all kinds of interpretations," Dobkin adds. "Some of them were just crazy. Like, they were aggressive. Some people went super German with it. Some were really aggressive. There was one that was very loud. It was more like a Pogue song [from the Celtic punk band The Pogues] than what we ended up with."
Holter and Persson, from the countryside of Stockholm, became the picks for "Jaja Ding Dong." "It was just so fantastic," Kotecha recalls of their demo. "We started listening to it and started laughing. The verse wasn’t quite right at the time, so I sent them voice notes saying, 'Hey, try doing this with the verse melody.' They did that and it just turned out to be what it is."
Ferrell brought an added layer of comedy to the chants of "Jaja Ding Dong." The engineer, as well as others in the recording studio, would pile into the vocal booth to shout the "Jaja Ding Dong" chorus, while the actor experimented with how much of an Icelandic accent to put into it. The song came alive when Ferrell recorded the number in his Lars voice.
Kotecha didn't anticipate "Jaja Ding Dong" to be the central banger of the entire soundtrack, not until he saw it on screen. Early test screenings with audiences had the number ranking alongside "Husavik" as the favorite track of the entire movie. "With a bar song, when you’re hearing it in a studio or a car you’re not really getting the full effect," he says, "but when you see people singing and drinking along, you’re like, 'That’s it!' "
Dobkin remembers "Jaja Ding Dong" was "infectious" from the moment they shot the number on set. The first time, in the beginning of the movie, Lars and Sigrit try to play their new Eurovision submission for their local pub, but the crowd has a different request. Actor Hannes Óli Ágústsson as bar patron Olaf became the star of online memes with his standout scene, fervently screaming, "Play 'Jaja Ding Dong'!" Dobkin laughs at the thought of Ágústsson as a surprise internet sensation because his scenes were partly ad libbed. The actor wasn't even supposed to be in the scene where Olaf runs out of the bar to shout at Lars and Sigrit to "get back in there right now and play 'Jaja Ding Dong.'" The director points out, "That whole little bit is an improv between him, Will, and Rachel."
The reprisal of "Jaja Ding Dong," at the end where Lars and Sigrit are performing on stage with their newborn baby in a carrier and massive headphones, was the hard part. It was Ferrell's idea to have Lars's baby strapped to him, but, just like working with animals who can be unpredictable on set, Dobkin says "you get yourself into a corner every time you read something like that in the script and you try to execute it."
"It was really hot in that bar that day," he explains. "Will looked at me. He was very nervous. We had two sets of babies that were twins, so we had four different babies that looked very much alike. Each take, we had to swap them out because it was so hot and the music was so loud and the headphones were on, the babies would all fall asleep during the song. We were like, ‘What is going on?!’ Will was like, ‘I don’t know if this is gonna work.' I was like, 'Let’s try a couple times.’"
While the infant actors seemed lulled by the dulcet tones of lyrics like "come, come my baby, we can get love on," the adult extras and crew members were energized. "That was another unbelievable thing," Dobkin notes. "Anytime we would be doing the music and were playing it live, whether it was 'Jaja Ding Dong' in that bar, whether it was 'Double Trouble' or 'Husavik' or 'Lion of Love,' whatever we were doing with a big live audience, they were fully into the music." The filmmaker recalls filming the sequence with Sigrit's "Husavik" on the Eurovision stage and no one in the 500-person audience of extras remembered to not applaud after the song was done. Dobkin needed to record dialogue, but it kept getting drowned out by cheers. "They exploded like they were at a real concert every single time," he says. "Somehow the music transcended and really was able to connect with an audience."
Dobkin and Kotecha are still surprised by the success of "Jaja Ding Dong," especially because they didn't know if audiences would take to it in the new environment caused by COVID-19. The film was initially meant to run in theaters for two weeks before hitting streaming, propelled by an ambitious, totally wild, but sure-to-be entertaining marketing campaign. It was meant to kick off with music producer Scooter Braun helping to announce Fire Saga as a totally real Icelandic band with a newly signed record deal. It was going to be "a true marketing campaign," complete with billboards, talk-show appearances, a single drop for "Volcano Man" to see if they could break into the Billboard charts, and a Saturday Night Live musical guest stint, Dobkin says. "We were never gonna say it was Will and Rachel. It was gonna be them but always [as] Lars and Sigrit."
It was all going to end with Ferrell and McAdams performing as their characters on the final night of the real Eurovision the same week of the film's planned premiere. "The COVID of it all really screeched that to a halt," Dobkin says. "Eurovision was canceled, but just as importantly, we couldn’t really market the movie because, with everything going on and people marching in the streets in America, it didn’t feel like a time for us to be out there ignoring all that."
That's when the movie, with the sounds of "Jaja Ding Dong" at the helm, became the subject of a word-of-mouth fan campaign on social media. The film premiered June 26 on Netflix, during the summer's earlier lockdown ordinances, and it allowed audiences to escape. For two hours, you could forget where you were, as one note of appreciation to Dobkin read.
A particular email still sticks with Kotecha. It came from a friend who works at a film studio. Kotecha didn't know this man well, but they had a couple work-related meetings in the past.
"He sent me this really beautiful and sad email about one of his good friends who passed from COVID mid summer," Kotecha recollects. "He said to me that, while [his friend] was sick, the thing that brought him so much joy was the Eurovision movie. He would play the soundtrack over and over again, and 'Jaja Ding Dong' was his favorite song. At his friend’s funeral, this guy’s brother learned how to play 'Jaja Ding Dong' on the guitar. This funeral turned into this amazing singalong with his family. It helped them remember him as this guy who loved to laugh."
"There’s a certain warmth that people got from the movie and a certain sense of kindness that really came across to people," Dobkin says — two things that are in short supply these days.