The Sparks Brothers, 2021.
Directed by Edgar Wright.
How can one rock band be successful, underrated, hugely influential, and criminally overlooked all at the same time? Take a musical odyssey through five weird and wonderful decades with brothers Ron and Russell Mael, celebrating the inspiring legacy of Sparks: your favorite band’s favorite band.
As endearingly, fawningly nerdy as you’d expect an Edgar Wright-directed documentary about Sparks to be – yet without even a whiff of hagiography – The Sparks Brothers is an essential, playful encapsulation of the band’s rich, dynamic history whether you’re a fan or not.
In a pre-film introduction at Sundance, Wright lamented how underappreciated he felt the pop-rock duo, comprised of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, are despite charting the path for so many acts which have followed their 54 years as a group. As Wright himself says, “How can they be so influential and underrated at the same time?”
Wright’s film, comprised of both extensive archive footage and gorgeous monochrome interviews with a variety of subjects running the gamut from band members to acquaintances, fellow musicians, and actors, captures not only the depth of their artistic genius but also their endearing, seemingly unending weirdness. You’d be forgiven for thinking, as so many have, that Sparks are a British band per their relentlessly droll personas, enough that one subject dubs them “the best British group to ever come out of America.”
A documentary that demystifies the famously enigmatic pair is definitely a mixed proposition, yet Wright’s film succeeds because it never professes to be an authoritative tell-all, merely an insightful, appealingly laid-back window into their lives. Ron and Russell meanwhile make for hilariously sardonic, generous subjects who lack the guardedness you might reasonably expect.
“Weird Al” Yankovic offers great perspective when he asks why people don’t take humourous bands seriously, that it’s possible to be witty and funny without being a joke, and the very same feels true of this film also. Wright, helming his first documentary, is unsurprisingly idiosyncratic in approach, opening the film with a credits fanfare from Sparks themselves making fun of cinematic style conventions, while identifying titles for interview subjects are frequently hilarious – particularly when dubbing Beck “See above,” and Wright himself as “Fanboy.”
The film’s impressively spry 140 minutes – courtesy of Paul Trewartha’s expert editing – are jam-packed with creative animated transitions and cutaways, not to mention masses of rare footage from the brothers’ own personal vaults, all of it scored by classic Sparks tracks of course.
Wright’s film certainly touches all the expected bases in terms of tracing the band’s origins, from the “jagged sense of narrative” informed by their childhood, through to the touching origins of Ron’s legendary mustache, and their growing pains as a band in the early going. But it becomes infinitely more interesting when it digs deep into how they’ve kept such a singular-yet-dynamic sound for over five decades while mostly keeping up an industrious output and not “selling out.”
More than anything, The Sparks Brothers is an extremely persuasive argument for the band’s continual evolution and reinvention; you can still tell a Sparks song from a tiny snippet no matter the decade it was made in, but their constant changing-up of their sound, with little consideration for commercial success no less, represents a strident commitment to personal and artistic integrity.
That’s not to say that Wright downplays the wider challenges of their success beyond the “special sauce” of the brothers’ partnership, between fights with labels and relentless personnel changes in their wider band, not to forget the crushing disappointment of unrealised, long-gestating film projects with both Jacques Tati and Tim Burton. But their letdowns haven’t in any way stymied their enthusiasm for left-field detours, with the pair’s self-penned, self-scored new musical Annette – directed by Leos Carax and starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard – due for release later in the year.
You could easily make an epic, binge-worthy TV docu-series out of Sparks and their colossal discography, so while The Sparks Brothers is in no way an all-encompassing deep dive, its earned reverence for its subjects and bounding momentum ensures it’s a soaring joy from start to finish. Also, stick around after the end credits for an hilarious final treat from Ron and Russ.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.