Director(s): Edgar Wright
Cast: Ron Mael, Russell Mael
Synopsis: THE SPARKS BROTHERS, is a musical odyssey through five weird and wonderful decades with Ron and Russell Mael celebrating the inspiring legacy of Sparks.
How can a band over the course of 5 decades rack up 25 studio albums, make over 300 songs, have multiple hits on the charts, be one of the most influential bands of all time, and still go relatively unknown in the vast history of music? It happens by being so consistent and so “ahead of your time” that people can’t even fathom the vast influences and changes that they make during their career. There is a line in the Letterboxd synopsis that states, “this is your favorite band’s favorite band”, and that statement couldn’t be more true. That is where the band Sparks sits, and for someone like me, I had never heard about them before this documentary.
Sparks is a musical duo of brothers Ron Mael (keyboardist and songwriter) and Russell Mael (singer) that are American but sound British. Over the course of their career they haven’t just gone against the status quo, but completely reshaped it into a creation of their liking, and so forth passed that on for bands to come. This documentary from Edgar Wright gives us this eccentric and wildly bombastic duo in the way they would likely want to be seen. The interviews are told in black and white as a way to focus specifically on what everyone is saying, but everything else is anything but black and white.
This film is filled with the sort of wildly creative thoughts and ideas that we have come to expect from Edgar Wright. Which that creative nature fits in perfectly for what the Sparks were trying to display in their music. One of the interviewees is the musician Beck, and he puts it perfectly when he says, “they had a level of creativity, but the culture wasn’t there yet.” This quote sort of sums up the Sparks story as they were able to change and alter their sound over the years to continuously bring new and exciting music to their fan base. Whether it always worked or not wasn’t an issue for Sparks, as long as they were trying to play the music they wanted to play.
From the very beginning you could tell this duo had a knack for being ahead of their time when one of their first songs, recorded in the late 1960s, was called “Computer Girl.” This was over 10 years before the personal home computer was first released by IBM, but Sparks still managed to find some level of success in this song. This success stuck around, but they never managed to fully break through into mainstream culture. They brothers, who were massive film fans themselves, had a role in 1977’s Rollercoaster, where they were able to show off their music, but this flirtation with stardom ran off the tracks when this disaster movie was a disaster of a movie. But one of the reasons Sparks may have never found the mainstream success of other rock bands of the time, a la Queen, was their continuous knack of reinventing themselves. Throughout the 70s, Sparks became polarizing figures among their fans, changing their style around in a way that caused frustration. But from this frustration, Sparks rose back up and, even before the 1980s, they made a synthesizer record that would become one of the first electro pop/dance songs of all-time.
While the story that Edgar Wright tells about these brothers is very timeline-esque and straightforward, it’s the way it is told that is what makes this documentary so exciting. The visual styles used, the level of mystery, the quick cuts and fast changes, all culminate into an energetic documentary that will, at the very least, keep your attention locked in for the entirety of the viewing. While the film may be long, there is always something to look forward too as you never know where exactly these brothers are going to end up. Wright follows them with a very precise point of view that allows us to see real footage and recreations, whether they be real, animated, or claymation. There is always a different way of storytelling for Wright, and that kind of changing nature is exactly how Sparks loved to tell their stories in their songs.
I will say, while I appreciated Wright’s point of view making the film, you can easily see this is from a fans perspective. It’s mentioned many times throughout the documentary that the strangeness of the duo was that Russell was a good-looking ladies man, but would be singing about how hard it was to get girls or to be noticed. In the collaborative album FFS, with Franz Ferdinand and Sparks, the beginning of “Johnny Delusional” goes,
“Some might find me borderline attractive from afar / But afar is not where I can stay and there you are”.
With Ron being the songwriter all of the songs were from his point of view and it would have been neat to uncover some of the weightier aspects of this story. Songs like “When do I Get to Sing my Way” really dove into how the band had been under-appreciated for so many years and the difference between Sparks and another artist singing in similar ways.
Sparks on face value were comedians to an extent. They liked to use satirical lines and vibrant sounds to really dive into some deep and dark places, and one interviewee in the film touches on that saying that one of the issues they didn’t get the exposure they deserved was because people took them at face value. I think that concept matches the documentary well, because you have to get past the face value of the film to really dive into the sadder elements of the band. I enjoyed this documentary quite a bit, but I think there was much more story to tell between these brothers, and that’s one thing I wish we would have dove into more.
Final: The Sparks Brothers is an exciting and energetic documentary about one of the most influential pop-duos in music history. Edgar Wright matches that level of energy in this long but informatively fun ride, and even if it might be more polished than I would have liked, it still tells a great story of two brothers long journey through the music world.
Jacob is a film critic and co-founder of the Music City Drive-In. He is a member of the Music City Film Critics’ Association and specializes in the awards season. You can find him on Twitter @Tberry57.