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Bring on the 'gorilla:' Eurovision final brings glittery fun

Blanche from Belgium performs the song "City Lights" during rehearsals for the Eurovision Song Contest, in Kiev, Ukraine, Friday, May 12, 2017. The final of The Eurovision Song Contest 2017 will be held on May 13. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)

A man in a tacky suit and his "gorilla" are one of the favorites to win this year's Eurovision song contest. By the event's standards, that's kind of understated.

Millions of Europeans are likely to be glued to their tubes on Saturday evening for Eurovision's final — either tapping their toes to pop-music trifles or gazing with amused irony at the performers' garish outfits. The event produces parties that rival those for the NFL's Super Bowl.

Someone previous winners have been shocks to the eyeballs — such as Finland's monster-masked Lordi in 2006 or bearded drag-queen chanteuse Conchita Wurst of Austria in 2014.

But last year's winner Jamala, whose victory brought the 2017 competition to the Ukrainian capital, struck a more serious note with a song about the 1944 forced relocation of Crimean Tatars by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

Bookmaker favorite Francesco Gabbani of Italy splits the difference. His song, he says, is a criticism of Western approaches to Eastern cultures and cites socio-biologist Desmond Morris as an influence. The person in a gorilla suit who dances with Gabbani presumably augments the concept.

The contest is aimed at good, apolitical fun. But the sweet intentions were soured for this 62nd edited when Russia's participation was scuttled by host Ukraine over the two nations' diplomatic and military conflict.

Russia is one of Eurovision's heavy hitters, tied with Sweden for the most top-five finishes this century. But this year's Russian entrant, Yuliya Samoylova, was blocked from competing by Ukraine because she had toured in Crimea after Russia's 2014 annexation of the peninsula.

In response, Russia's state-owned Channel 1 television is refusing to broadcast the contest, replacing Saturday's final with a screening of the film "Alien."

The Moscow-Kiev split is a headache for Eurovision's producer, the European Broadcasting Union, which strives mightily to keep pop and politics separate. Overtly political flags and banners are banned, and lyrics are monitored for provocative content.

In 2009, the EBU nixed the Georgian entry "We Don't Wanna Put In," a dig at Russian President Vladimir Putin. The union, however, has been criticized for not barring "1944" last year, allowing Russia-Ukraine tensions to fester.

The acrimony is ironic, since Eurovision was founded in 1956 to bring the recently warring countries of Europe together. It launched a year before the foundation of the European Economic Community, forerunner of the European Union.

From its launch with seven countries, Eurovision has grown to include more than 40, including non-European nations such as Israel and — somewhat controversially — far-off Australia.

The contest helped launch the careers of Sweden's ABBA — victors in 1974 with "Waterloo" — Canada's Celine Dion, who won for Switzerland in 1988, and Irish high-steppers Riverdance, the halftime entertainment in 1994.

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Heintz reported from Moscow.

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