[Editor’s note: This article includes some mild spoilers about the plot of “Annette.”]
This has been a most unusual year for Sparks. The pop rock duo, comprised of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, have adapted to the strange trajectory of their fame that has followed them for 50-odd years. Despite some diehard fans in the U.S., their energetic and eclectic compositions have been far more appreciated across Europe. Needless to say, it took a few Europeans to bring Sparks back into the limelight. First came the June release of Edgar Wright’s sprawling documentary “The Sparks Brothers,” which reintroduced them to American audiences just in time for “Annette” to open the Cannes Film Festival in July. The unorthodox rock opera marks the latest undertaking by elusive French auteur Leos Carax, whose previous feature, “Holy Motors,” came out nearly a decade ago.
Carax never really stopped working. The filmmaker spent almost eight years collaborating with Sparks on “Annette,” which stars Adam Driver as Henry, a self-destructive comic, and Marion Cotillard as Anne, his opera singer wife. The Maels first conceived of the project for the stage years ago, but it was hardly the first time they took a stab at a musical: In the early ’70s, the pair met with slapstick legend Jacques Tati about composing music and starring in his last feature, “Confusion,” but Tati died before it could progress further. A decade later, they attempted to adapt the Japanese manga “Mai, the Psychic Girl” into a musical with Tim Burton attached to direct until the filmmaker was attracted to other projects.
Needless to say, “Annette” has been a long time coming, and it represents a unique meeting of the minds: Like a lot of Sparks songs, Carax’s moody, enigmatic storytelling blends genuine emotion with surreal twists. In “Annette,” these manifest in everything from a musical sex scene and Henry’s combustible call-and-response interaction with his audience to Anne giving birth to the eponymous wooden doll, whom the couple raise as a real daughter. Through it all, Sparks compositions oscillate in tone from the ebullience of the opening earworm “So May We Start” and the swooning “We Love Each Other So Much” through the gloominess of “The Abyss.”
Michael Buckner for PMC
As it turns out, “Annette” isn’t just a musical by Sparks. Carax played an active role in the development of the 42 songs heard throughout the movie, including requests for additions and tweaks. Here, the trio explain how that division of labor took place. The following interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
RON MAEL: The first time we wrote a full-blown movie musical was our adaptation of “Mai, the Psychic Girl” for Tim Burton, which didn’t get made. We learned pretty early on from that experience how to incorporate dialogue into a musical setting that feels naturalistic while still feeling stylized. That’s something we really enjoy — incorporating things that don’t ordinarily find people breaking into song. We were able to transfer that kind of thinking to “Annette.” Songs like “So May We Start” and “We Love Each Other So Much” aren’t song-songs; they’re more like rhythmic speaking, not in a rock-music kind of way but as actual dialogue.
LEOS CARAX: They came to me with this film and then we wrote more than we thought we would. We had seven or eight years. We had time to reshape the whole thing. We had 80 songs and only kept 42. There were many versions of every song, depending on where the story was going.
The only changes I made were with the writing. It was only a storyline without characters. The brothers live in this Sparks bubble, which is pop fantasy. There was a lot of irony. Irony in a cinema is a danger, I think. It has a tendency to make everything less crucial, less real. It’s a bit too easy for cinema, especially today. I had to make that irony into something else. We had to really create Henry as a character.
RON: Very early on, we discussed with Leos our shared idea of what a modern movie musical should be — that there should be a sincerity to what is going on, the characters aren’t removed in any kind of way from expressing their feelings. Also, the idea of choreography as being more naturalistic within the movie musical, coupled with the delivery of the singers being more naturalistic.
RUSSELL MAEL: The entire story and most of the music was complete before Leos was involved, but there were certain pieces that he wanted to refine as well as some of the characters. There were eight years of tweaking the dialogue within the pieces that already existed. There were a few pieces that were added at his suggestion.
“So May We Start” was there at the beginning, but Leos added some stuff. The lyrics include the lines, “The budget is large, but still not large enough.” That’s because originally, we thought this would be a stage performance, but the lyrics kind of translated to the movie anyway. Leos he added that break section where they kneel down on the sidewalk. The whole thrust of the piece was there from the beginning, though — the way it serves as this intro to the movie you’re about to see. When we sing that “the authors are here so let’s no show disdain, the authors are here, and they’re a little vain,” that’s us specifically writing about ourselves.
CARAX: It was very different lyrics than today. But the title was there. We changed it from Broadway to cinema. They wrote like half of it. The stuff I say at the opening comes from Sondheim, which is why I thank him in the credits. He wrote a piece where he talks to the audience and presents the show. Then there was the coincidence where I talk about breathing and telling the audience to hold their breath, which seems appropriate now during COVID times.
RON MAEL: The monologue scenes with Henry aren’t all song. That was Leos’ idea. He felt that Henry’s character was slightly too sketchy at times and the monologues could be the points that define more what his character was doing. Originally, we preferred the comedian’s act to be more musical, but Leos felt that would make it too subjective. He felt there needed to be a few breaks from the songs.
CARAX: We obviously talked about Lenny Bruce, Andy Kaufman, and that guy who went into that racist rant from “Seinfeld” [Michael Richards]. I read a lot of autobiographies of standup comedians that were really interesting. I read Richard Pryor and Steve Martin because of the scene where he vomits before going onstage because he’s opening for Nina Simone, who I love, and she tries to console him. That was a great scene. And I watched Bill Hicks.
RUSSELL MAEL: The music and lyrics of “We Love Each Other So Much” are identical to our version, but obviously the final part where they’re making love and such — that was Leos’ idea, to have that specific moment.
RON MAEL: There were so many times where we had a piece of music and just a general idea in our heads of how it would be staged, but he’d take it to these beautiful extremes in almost every case. When Henry is performing this, uh, very specific act on Anne, you just shake your head when you see that. I asked Leos when he thought of doing that and he said, “From the very beginning.”
CARAX: I told them, “Let’s do it in three parts. One part is the romantic part, then the rhythmic thing on the motorcycle, then they’re gonna fuck, and then it’s going to calm down.” So we reshaped it that way. Why don’t people in musicals fuck? It’s not a rule but it seems weird. Probably because it’s an old genre. It was a fun process for everyone. It was contagious. The only difficulty was for Marion to sing with her head in a very difficult position.
RUSSELL MAEL: Leos also came up with the idea for the song “Girl From the Middle of Nowhere.” He wanted an establishing piece that sets up Marion’s character — where she came from, her roots, her fears of things in life. We came up with the music and co-wrote those lyrics with him.
Another piece that he wrote was “The Abyss,” the final piece of the movie. Our original piece ended with everyone shouting “He’s a murderer!” Then you imagine what happens from that point on. Leos felt that even more than an epilogue, he needed a scene to show what happened next.
RON MAEL: We are adaptable. With the murder scene on the boat, there was discussion of whether that should be done realistically on an actual boat, but we actually hoped it would be artificial. The way he did it is so incredibly beautiful and hyper-emotional, much more so than if it had been on a real boat.
RUSSELL MAEL: The birth of “Annette” was not in our original. Leos thought it was really important for her to be shown giving birth and he suggested the lyrics.
RON MAEL: When we originally conceived this as a theatrical piece, we wanted it to have three main characters. The problem was the representation of this child, Annette. Since things can be more stylized on the stage, we were going to just have a toy baby doll. But it was Leos’ idea to actually have Annette as a puppet in the film. It’s really quite brilliant, because you always believe these characters see her as a real child.
RUSSELL MAEL: Leos really wanted to have three or four instances of preexisting Sparks songs that were adapted for the movie. We weren’t opposed to that, but didn’t see the need to reference ourselves. But I think it’s fair to say he’s a fan and wanted to have these little references. You can hear “Bon Voyage” [below] in the song where they’re traveling around the world. There’s also the scene where Adam implores the audience to “laugh, laugh, laugh” that’s just like our song “Rock, Rock, Rock.” He wanted us to adapt that with the same melody. Then the “Showbizz News” pieces are based on our song “Calm Before the Storm.” They’re almost like a remix.
RON MAEL: Oh, and when Marion dances with Annette in an early joyful scene, she’s singing the melody of “Thanks But No Thanks.”
RUSSELL MAEL: Yes! Even the intro, where she says, “Just keep right on walking.” The line is changed but the melody is the same.
RON MAEL: There’s definitely a Leos Carax universe that he has created in his films; we’ve done something similar with our music and lyrics. He’s a pretty uncompromising filmmaker and we feel the same way.
CARAX: My whole cinema has been based on loss from the beginning. I’ve lost a lot of people, even as a child. I think it’s always been there, not even as a theme but as an experience. Film is like a ghost. I’ve made a lot of ghosts. All the projects I was going to make, I can’t go back to them. I have to find a new project.
RON MAEL: We’ve really learned to ignore past failures. Part of this project seemed irrational — like, “Why would you want to put yourself through that again?” We already tried writing musicals. Sometimes that failure can become a cause for us. We had so much passion for the idea of doing a movie musical that it finally happened. I think that is something that sustained us for the eight years this was going on. The one thing we had faith on was that Leos was so focused the whole time. He didn’t have 10 other projects going on. Everyone was putting everything on this one film.
RUSSELL MAEL: We’ve been energized by all this. We’re actually in the midst of writing another rock opera. We’re gluttons for punishment! We had a finished album in 2020, “A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip,” and the question was, “Should you release it at this time during a pandemic?” We felt that people should have some fresh music at this time. It’s a diversion in a really good way.
CARAX: There’s a kind of cliché about filmmakers, that when you make a film, you feel immortal. But it’s true. I’ve never been sick a shoot. When I’m not shooting, I feel sick. You feel protected by the the film. Once a film is finished, you feel young again. So this COVID thing, the day we finished the film, this virus comes and grabs us. I thought nobody is going to see our film. But at the same time, I left with my editor, we went to the countryside, and did the whole film again. So hopefully the film is better today.
“Annette” is now available in limited theatrical release. It starts streaming on Amazon Prime on August 20.