Movie Review: The Sparks Brothers

Fans of Edgar Wright (myself included) know that he is as much a music lover as a cinephile. But because his films are so full of what Guillermo del Toro calls “eye-protein,” it’s easy to take for granted how he uses music in them. Take, for example, his adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel Scott Pilgrim Against the World (2011), a vibrant and visually overwhelming film that finds its inspiration on comic book layouts and old school video games. However, from the score by Beck to its portrait of Toronto’s underground scene, music plays a key role in the story, the competition for a record contract between Scott’s grungy punk band and a duo of EDM musicians who can actually create creatures with their beats out of thin air being a perfect example. And then there’s Baby Driver (2017) with its opening credit sequences and its car chases choreographed and edited to the beats of such songs as The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bell Bottoms.” Which is why it should really surprise no one that for his first documentary, Wright would focus on one of his favorite groups, particularly one that shares his own idiosyncrasies: Sparks.

Ron and Russell Mael, the masterminds behind Sparks, and Wright are kindred spirits. Each one of Sparks’ 25 albums is as different and unique as Wrights’ eight films (including the forthcoming Dario Argento-indebted Last Night in Soho). They love cinema as much as Wright, even though it has taken them more than four decades to get a film project off the ground (the musical Annette, directed by Leos Carax and starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, opening on August 6). As musicians, they know how to respond to the changing winds in the industry and how to stay several steps ahead of it. They could rock as hard as any heavy metal band while embracing electronica’s full potential. Ron’s lyrics are witty, literate, unexpected and his arrangements take full advantage of Russell’s wide vocal range.

And yet, their work is only known by the cognoscenti and the more hardcore fans. I recall seeing the music video for “Cool Places,” the song they recorded with The Go-Go’s Jane Wiedlin, on MTV but other than that I had not actually listened to any of their songs until the world premiere of Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers at Sundance was announced early this year. When the first trailer with its black and white montage of a Who’s Who of the world of pop culture and bits and pieces of their music videos came out, I went down the You Tube rabbit hole and watched video after video. I love bizarre, eccentric, quirky music so I blame no one but myself for not having paid enough attention. The Sparks Brothers redresses that oversight.

Brothers Russell and Ron Mael from director Edgar Wright’s film THE SPARKS BROTHERS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Jake Polonsky / Focus Features

From the film’s very first frames (with Russell singing “The Opening Documentary Film Fanfare” as the opening credits listing every single production company involved in the film’s financing and production appear on screen) to the film’s mid-end credits reveal poking fun at everything we’ve seen before, Wright is determined to mock and even upend some of the conventions of the traditional music documentary while sticking close to its chronological structure. He uses silent film intertitles and even has the brothers hold and pose with two window frames while promising in voiceover to open a window into their lives. Wright even includes a Frequently Asked Questions section with the brothers in the first minutes of the documentary.

Their upbringing was as American as the clichéd American apple pie. Born in California, three years apart, Ron, now 75, and Russell, 72, would go to the movies with their parents every weekend. They would walk right in the middle of the film and would later imagine what they had missed. Their father died when Ron was 11 and Russell 8. Russell was a quarterback in high school. They both went to college: Ron to study cinema and graphic arts and Russell, theater arts and filmmaking. They both hated folk music; they both surfed (the Maels even offer a recreation of their surfing expeditions). Other than the above and their daily routines, you will find very little about their personal lives and that is fine with Wright and with us. Part of their mystique lies not only on the sheer unpredictability of their work but to the fact that, in this social media influencer-driven age, they have managed to keep their private lives out of reach. To them, it’s all about the work.

Ron and Russell recorded their first never released album under the name Urban Renewal Project in 1967 (“We predated Kraftwerk when it comes to computer songs,” jokes Russell about their first single “Computer Girl”). The following year they formed Halfnelson and with Todd Rundgren on board as producer actually released an album that didn’t sell that well. Studio executives suggested that since they loved movies so much to adopt the name The Sparks Brothers as a tribute to The Marx Brothers. Ron and Russell wisely shortened it to Sparks. 

They relocated to England after a successful series of concerts there; soon after, they released their breakthrough album Kimono My House (1974). Their single “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Two of Us,” an appearance on BBC One’s Top of the Pops, Russell’s magazine-cover friendly Roger Daltrey looks, and Ron’s sober and expressionless stage presence and Charlie Chaplin/Hitler moustache turned them into an overnight sensation. But the label had other plans for them and after the pulling the plug on their English residency, suggested that the focus stay on the brothers and not on the band as a whole. Wright interviews the Maels’ former bandmates; instead of the bitter backbiting one expects, we instead hear these musicians express regret, sadness and even acceptance at not having been part of the journey.

The brothers’ musical restlessness drove them to ditch the guitars and work alongside Italian producer and electronic music pioneer Giorgio Moroder in their album No. 1 in Heaven (1979); to produce a radio musical, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman (2009); to adopt a more orchestral sound in Li’l Beethoven (2002); and even collaborate with the Scottish band Franz Ferdinand (FFS, 2015). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of the many recordings and collaborations this incredibly creative, hard-working duo are responsible for. Alas, outside of a brief appearance in the godawful disaster flic Rollercoaster (1977…IN SENSURROUND!!!), their film project with Jacques Tati and a musical adaptation of the manga Mai, the Psychic Girl to be directed by Tim Burton fell apart. 

Wright deploys an enormous number of archival clips, home movies, photos, music videos, animation (stop-motion, hand-drawn, cut-outs, clay) and the two brothers droll, matter-of-fact testimony to chart their unusual, long-lasting, highly influential career (even though groups like Pet Shop Boys may not want to acknowledge that influence). Wright even tapped his Rolodex for the expert, fannish perspective and analysis from, among others, Beck, Franz Ferdinand’s frontman Alex Kapanos (who delivers one of the best arguments in the film when he talks about the dangers of pandering to the fan base), The Red Hot Chilli Peppers bassist Flea, Todd Rundgren, author Neil Gaiman, comedian and actor Patton Oswalt, TV producers Daniel and Amy Sherman-Palladino; and, of course, the band’s number one fan, Wright himself. Even actual regular ticket-paying fans are interviewed, some of them expressing surprise and joy at seeing themselves in old clips. 

The ingredients may be the same as those of your conventional music doc but it’s how Wright mixes and seasons them that makes the difference. The editing, is as energetic, full of brio and surprises as the editing in Wright’s fiction films. His obsessive focus on their work and how each record and tour came to be, the thinking behind them, is nothing more and nothing less than a celebration of the creative process. More than a love letter, The Sparks Brothers is a tribute to the many artists, regardless of field, who march to the beat of their own drums. If The Sparks Brothers doesn’t convert you to the cult of Sparks then there is something definitely wrong with you. Me? To quote Oliver Twist, “can I have some more, please?”

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