Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Focus Features releases the film in select theaters on Friday, June 18.
A straightforward but delightful and unusually spirited love letter to the least straightforward (but delightful and unusually spirited) art pop duo in the history of British-sounding American music, Edgar Wright’s “The Sparks Brothers” is a beat-for-beat celebration of the band’s deathless creative odyssey, an irresistible invitation to join their small but devoted cult of diehard fans, and a beautifully wrapped gift to anyone who’s ever had angst in their pants about Ron and Russell Mael before. But most of all, Wright’s documentary is a gift to the Sparks brothers themselves — something these baby boomers have wanted ever since they were film-obsessed little kids in Westside Los Angeles — and we get to see them open it right before our eyes.
Under-rated, over-looked, and hugely influential all at the same time — to paraphrase one of the many stars who Wright arranges into a veritable galaxy of talking heads — Sparks has survived more than five decades in the music business due to their almost pathological inability to stagnate or write music for anyone but each other, an approach that’s paradoxically helped them to invent everyone from Kurt Cobain to “Weird Al” Yankovic along the way (only one of whom Wright managed to interview for this film). While their contemporaries eagerly sold their souls in a bid to be crowned the next big thing, the Mael brothers were happy to eke out a living as the self-amused court jesters of rock and roll and follow their restless muse wherever it happened to lead them — which was virtually everywhere, and before the rest of the world managed to get there.
But even after 25 LPs (and counting), there was still one place that Sparks had never been able to go with their music despite a number of painful attempts that had either blown up in their faces, threatened to derail the band completely, or ended with someone’s death. I’m speaking, of course, about the movies — the Mael brothers’ first love.
As Franz Ferdinand singer Alex Kapranos puts it: “If you want to look at Ron and Russell, you have to look at them through one prism: And that prism is cinema.” The staccato playfulness of the band’s early songs was inspired by the form-busting rebellion of the French New Wave, and that cinematic verve carried over to the drama of Sparks’ album art and the absurdity of the lyrics contained therein (early hits like “This Town ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” sound like Richard Lester comedies that have been squeezed through a meat-grinder). For as long as Ron Mael has been waiting to sing “My Way,” Russell has been waiting to weld Sparks back onto the screen from whence it came.
Until now, the closest they’d come was a cameo in the 1976 disaster movie “Rollercoaster,” where the Maels replaced Kiss at the last minute. (Wright’s documentary takes great pleasure in revisiting this particularly ignominious attempt to crossover.) Things only got more disappointing from there. First there was Sparks’ ill-fated collaboration with Jacques Tati in the early ’80s, which went into eternal turnaround after the director’s death. The deepest wound of all came a decade later, when the Maels wasted six years (and went broke) working on Tim Burton’s abandoned musical adaptation of a manga called “Mai, the Psychic Girl.”
That’s almost as long as the nine years they’ve spent trying to make their radio play about Ingmar Bergman into a movie, but at least they kept some other irons in the fire at the same time. And when the Mael brothers finally brought a film project to fruition — writing the screenplay and songs for Leos Carax’s much-anticipated (and fully completed) “Annette” — its premiere was delayed indefinitely due to the worst pandemic in more than a century. So when “The Sparks Brothers” opens with the band singing a cheeky song about the production company fanfare, it’s not just a cheeky joke that speaks to the band’s foundational sense of humor, it’s also a moment of exaltation 50 years in the making for two artists who’ve never given up on themselves, engineered by someone who’s contagiously overjoyed at seeing their dream come true.
If Wright’s documentary is so rigidly structured along chronological lines that it can’t hope to embody the same zigzag genius that shaped the band’s career, the one-album-at-a-time viscerally reflects the relentlessness of Sparks’ output, as well as the sheer tenacity required to weather so many cultural sea changes over the years. It also helps that, as one of Wright’s interview subjects puts it during the film’s rapid-fire intro: “Sparks is a band you can look up on Wikipedia and know nothing.” That’s true enough (and not just because the Mael brothers are so tight-lipped about their private lives that their separate Wikipedia pages are virtually the same).
Reading through Sparks’ discography and the wild sonic detours that fans soon came to recognize as the road itself just isn’t the same as hearing the almost Gilbert and Sullivan-level theatricality of “Kimono My House,” registering how matter-of-fact it was for the Maels to junk their entire musical identity every time it threatened to grow the least bit stale, or watching the way that Russell maintained his deadpan scowl even as fans mobbed the stage during a show that didn’t have any security because the band’s label decided they were worth more dead than alive.
The Maels’ “Prestige”-like commitment to their art (even when it seemed more like a bit) is what this love-in of a documentary captures better than anything else, as even the most accomplished of the film’s 80 interview subjects exude an unfakeable sense of awe. Beck, Jane Wiedlin, Jason Schwartzman, Andy Bell, half of New Order, and “Gilmore Girls” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino represent just a tiny fraction of the famous and civilian fans that Wright gathers here, and every single one of these people — including the band’s frequent collaborators — seems giddily mystified by the force of nature that is Sparks.
That doesn’t stop them from dropping evocative nuggets like “Sparks tiptoe through the tulips between beauty and revulsion,” but none of what these individual talking heads have to say is more illuminating than the harmony Wright hears in the chorus of their voices. Listening to such a wide selection of iconoclastic marvel over the courage required to collaborate with disco godhead Giorgio Moroder on “No. 1 in Heaven” or the warped genius necessary to write a killer pop song called “Tips for Teens” (sample lyrics: “Don’t eat no curry/before a very important date”) makes clear how many of the artists we consider “true originals” looked to the Mael brothers for the permission they needed to be themselves. You can practically hear Wright asking himself how it’s possible that Sparks could light so many brains on fire and yet never get the recognition they deserve, and then — in a moment that epitomizes the silly but significant ways this documentary exudes the band’s irreverent DNA — you can literally hear Wright add his thoughts into the mix, as the director recasts himself as an interview subject without skipping a beat.
By the time it’s over, “The Sparks Brothers” has become more of a public service than any kind of Behind the Music-like profile of the Mael brothers’ lives. Wright is just a big fan who wants the whole world to hear this cool thing he loves so much, and for his musical heroes to receive their overdue recognition on screen and in the present tense — not just while Ron and Russell are both still alive, but also while they’re still Sparks (though it’s unclear if they’ll ever stop being Sparks, or if they ever have). Tempting as it can be to wish that Wright had slowed down, probed deeper, and leaned even harder into the Mael brothers’ love of movies, it’s so fun and thrilling to watch the movies finally love them back.
“The Sparks Brothers” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the Premieres section.
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