I first came to know Sparks on the occasion of seeing them live several years ago. They played not just one, but two shows at Lincoln Hall, the relatively intimate venue furnishing the ideal circumstances under which to discover this utterly idiosyncratic band.
A friend of mine—a fellow cinephile who, like myself, participates heavily in the local film community—remarked that if something had happened at one of those shows, half the Chicago moviegoing crowd would have been wiped out. It was a humorous in-joke, since we couldn’t turn around at either show without bumping into someone we knew from seeing movies most every day.
This is to say that, in addition to being one of the greatest bands, Sparks might also be the ultimate movie lovers’ band, so entrenched is their craft in the art of cinema. Another friend recently wondered on social media whether this could be the year so-called “average people” finally discover Sparks—a premonition elicited by two films involving the not-yet-but-should-be iconic duo: this documentary The Sparks Brothers, directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Baby Driver), and the forthcoming Annette, a fiction feature starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard and directed by French wunderkind Leos Carax from an original script by the band, who also wrote new music for the film.
So it would seem Ron and Russell Mael, born and raised in California but whose look and sound often cause people to mistake them for a European band, are finally getting their due. That made the concept of this documentary, more than two hours long and propelled by the force of Focus Features’ PR machine, even more exciting. Early in the film, Wright opines in voiceover that Sparks is “successful, underrated, hugely influential, and criminally overlooked—all at the same time.” And he’s not wrong; Sparks is simultaneously one of the most well-liked bands in some circles and one that most have never heard of in others. That’s true of many bands, but what sets Sparks apart is how long they’ve been at it. Both brothers are in their 70s, and they’ve been recording music and performing for five decades. They’ve written more than 300 songs and recorded 25 albums. Hell, they even appeared in an episode of Gilmore Girls. (Show creators Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino are big fans and appear in the documentary.)
It’s somewhat forgivable, then, that Wright’s ode is essentially an annotated version of the band’s Wikipedia page. Anyone who likes Sparks will appreciate this aggressive overview of their personal lives and careers, and there’s no denying that Wright is a filmmaker whose enjoyment in making films is palpable.
Disappointing might be a better word for it; one might have hoped that, when time came for Sparks to get their due, the treatment would better reflect the band’s singularity. The film is ambitious, touching on every one of Sparks’ albums, with talking heads to elucidate on the record taking center stage. But Wright’s rabid inclusion of every famous person who even remotely likes Sparks cheapens the endeavor a bit. Among those featured are Beck, Neil Gaiman, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Mike Myers, Fred Armisen, Mark Gatiss, Jason Schwartzman, Jack Antonoff, and Patton Oswalt. Some of the insights are illuminating, especially those from people who have worked with Sparks and real-life fans who have dedicated significant parts of their lives to the band. Current and former Sparks band members and producers, such as Tony Visconti and Giorgio Moroder, speak thoughtfully on their collaborations with the brothers, helping to balance out the who’s who of Sparks’ celebrity fandom. Still, most of the interviewees veer into the realm of the bromidic. Not for nothing, when Wright appears onscreen, he labels himself a fanboy; one senses that the idea for this film came to fruition in a group text with his famous buddies.
Wright shot the talking head footage in black and white, a rather superfluous aesthetic choice. Interspersed throughout are clever animated sequences, as are now found in most documentaries. Wright employs a mix of 2D and stop-motion animation, plus full-on Ron and Russell puppets that I’m sure are now a beloved souvenir. The most annoying device is the interstitials that introduce each segment, featuring the title of a song or album spelled out in stylish typeface with a random definition below it. These unnecessary flourishes bring to mind the fail-safe exordium beloved by lazy college students the world over: “The dictionary defines Sparks as . . .” Wright also focuses excessively on the band’s album cover art, another example of a rather shallow preoccupation that overshadows the integrity of its subject.
At one point, Beck astutely observes, “If you want to understand Ron and Russell, you need to see them through one prism, and that prism is cinema.” The richest part of the film is the exploration of the brothers’ enduring cinephilia, from Russell’s New Wave-inspired student film to their unrealized collaborations with directors Jacques Tati and Tim Burton; their 22nd album, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, is a full-fledged radio musical drama that’s been performed as a live show and was briefly slated to be adapted into a feature film by Canadian director Guy Maddin.
Appropriately, the elements of the documentary that are cinematic do the brothers justice. The editing conveys more through wryly curated archival footage than any of the random celebrities remarking on cover art. This material includes charming photographs from the Maels’ childhood (pretty boy frontman Russell was a football player in high school; keyboardist Ron, perhaps best known for his Charlie Chaplin/”Hitler” mustache, has always rocked some impressive facial hair); concert and interview clips; and imagery completely unrelated to the duo, which at times evokes a smart essay film rather than the rote documentary this is.
Fans of the mildly elusive musicians will enjoy learning about aspects of their lives they prefer to keep private, though nothing that’s revealed could be termed a bombshell. The music, that unparalleled combination of Russell’s vociferous falsetto and Ron’s ingenious lyrics (in addition to his keyboard parts), stands for itself. To Wright’s credit, if his goal is to make viewers, be they previously familiar with Sparks or not, want to go out and listen to their music, then he certainly succeeds. In keeping with their cinematic aspirations, Sparks’ music is the perfect soundtrack, even when they’re the narrative. Their sheer presence likewise bolsters the film; the duo are charming and funny, with such ease as befits those who have been performing for most of their lives. They seem set on maintaining that last air of mystique not commonly allowed to celebrities nowadays, withholding certain tidbits of information (specifically around their love lives) and joking about others.
Sparks may not have sold out arenas in the States, but now they’ll be adorning the mega screens of multiplexes across the country, in a movie directed by a filmmaker whose name will certainly be a draw. In just two months time, audiences will be flocking—one can only hope—to see the band’s cinematic aspirations realized by none other than Leos Carax. Perhaps next time Sparks is in town, we’ll be bumping into many more folks who became fans as a result of this and Annette; even better if we start seeing them at the movie theater, inspired by the brothers’ reverent cinephilia. v