For The Sparks Brothers, I was drawn to the multiplex by Edgar Wright’s presence at the helm. His Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is one of my favorite comedies, and I’ll seldom turn down an opportunity to rewatch Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz. (I’m in the minority for feeling meh about Baby Driver and The World’s End, but that’s ok.)
Though it was curiosity over Wright’s first swing at directing a documentary that pulled me in (and he succeeds splendidly), it’s my appreciation for a band I’d never heard of that will linger.
In his film, the impact of Ron and Russell Mael, the sibling duo of Sparks, is attested to by innumerable members of popular (and themselves influential) bands. Across five decades of musicmaking, they’ve influenced glam and punk. With their 1979 album No. 1 in Heaven, they were the forerunners of synth-pop. Musicians from the Cure, New Order, the Human League, the Go-Go’s, Sonic Youth – not to mention Flea and Beck – tell us all about it.
Despite the plethora of musician and producer interviewees, it’s commentary from the Maels themselves that anchors The Sparks Brothers. Framed together from the belly upwards, shot in digital black and white, they take turns narrating their biography. We get a short overview of their formative years: how their father’s premature death brought them closer, how their cool mom took them to see the Beatles not once but twice.
Once we pass their college days, we get few biographical details, just sporadic morsels like Russell’s brief romantic fling with Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s, or how their hetero orientation contrasts with their sizeable gay fanbase. From here on, it’s almost all about their work, illuminated generously with footage from concerts and television appearances.
Atypically, for songwriter Ron, the music comes first, the lyrics afterwards. Russell then bends his high, otherworldly voice to the words. Here, you won’t get any Behind the Music tales of addiction, trashed hotel rooms, or trails of brokenhearted groupies. The impression instead is of a nonstop work ethic and a rigidly followed routine. These put them in the studio daily, while Russell’s gym club regimen has allowed him to remain bouncily kinetic onstage into his 70s. (Ron’s unhinged glare and silent presence at the keyboards evidently doesn’t require anything more than a brisk walk in his local park.)
At 135 minutes, The Sparks Brothers is comprehensive but never boring. After their first two albums went nowhere in the US, Ron and Russell left California for the UK. This set the pattern for the remaining decades: despite multiple performances on American Bandstand, they’ve never cracked Billboard’s Top 40, even with number one hits in France, Germany, and Australia.
Growing up in Hollywood, it’s not surprising that cinema entered the siblings’ bloodstream from the beginning. Their reverence for the French New Wave makes perfect sense, given their shared brashness and near-anarchic tendencies. For a cinephile like me, it was fascinating to ponder their “what might’ve been” failed efforts to collaborate with a couple of directors, one legendary and one overrated. And I’m now excited to see the outcome of their soon-to-be-released project with the weirdly brilliant Leos Carax.
Wright establishes a playful mood from the start, firing a salvo of FAQs at Ron and Russell: “How did you meet?” “We’re brothers.” “What’s your sexual persuasion?” “Slightly horny.” A bit later, Wright illustrates the reception of an early album with 1930s footage of a man taking a belly flop off a tall pier.
This tone is a perfect fit for Sparks’ persona and lyrics. When a recording executive urged them to convert their style into something more marketable, their reply was an album entitled Music That You Can Dance To, its title track a cutting mockery of sellout songs. Their song “Balls” is a bluntly comic take on society’s dominance by mediocre men, while “What the Hell Is It This Time?” hilariously portrays a grumpy god too busy to answer individual prayers.
The Sparks Brothers is a love letter, and Wright’s affection and respect are contagious. One can’t but admire the Maels’ persistence and incorruptibility; my takeaway impression of the duo is of a fundamental sweetness, vulnerability, and decency. Near the end of the documentary, a lifelong enthusiast states that on meeting a newly minted fan of Sparks’ latest work, his response is “welcome aboard, and here’s more.” After this film, I’m grateful to hop on their train.
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )