Who are Sparks? What are Sparks? Where are Sparks from? What kind of music do Sparks make? These are just some of the many questions beloved cult filmmaker and self-proclaimed Sparks fanboy Edgar Wright aims to get to the bottom of throughout his new documentary, The Sparks Brothers. The film is an extensive, whimsical and utterly relentless deep-dive look at the history of a band who have rebelled against worthless genre boundaries from the very beginning, making them one of America’s most enigmatic and influential musical offerings.
In essence, Sparks are Ron and Russell Mael, a pair of charismatic brothers from Pacific Palisades, California, who, inspired by their artistic upbringing, formed a vivacious and visually captivating pop and rock band in 1969. Known for their idiosyncratic style, cartoonish stage presence, unorthodox finesse and narrative style lyrics, Sparks gleaned significant fame after appearing on Top of The Pops in 1979, drawing attention with their polarising styles—Ron with his otherworldly frame, deadpan facial expressions, stiff keyboard playing and Hitler style moustache, and Russell with his cutie-pie looks, animated theatrics and impressive vocal range. Over their 50-year career, Sparks have produced twenty-five unique and trailblazing studio albums, each as fascinating as the last, with which they have accumulated a massive cult following and managed to be both ahead and behind the curve. The Sparks Brothers is the story of their lives, legacy, and literally everything else that happened along the way.
Wright approaches the Mael brothers with the same humour and energetic methods as his previous feature projects, treating us to a linear thrill ride through Sparks history. His fast-paced style works a treat when combined with Ron and Russell’s rich history and distinctive wit; they are indeed a match made in heaven. Constructed of an overwhelming amount of archival footage and an eclectic mix of sleek talking heads, the film is an audio and visual feast for the senses. We hear from Sparks themselves, hardcore fans, ex-members, collaborators and friends alongside comedians such as Mark Gattis and Mike Myers and a plethora of legendary musicians such as Yazoo, Duran Duran, New Order, Beck, Björk and Franz Ferdinand. Each one of them credit Sparks as inspirations and musical geniuses: ‘If you get on a tour bus with a bunch of musicians, eventually the conversation will go to Sparks,’ Beck confesses, because, as most musicians know, we have Sparks to thank for influencing some of the most infamous bands in the music industry. Within the animated and excitable talking head sections of the film, each subject offers informed and lively discussion as well as heart-warming anecdotes and unbelievable tidbits of Sparks trivia; it’s as if each participant can’t wait to lovingly gush about just how much they love and admire Sparks.
There’s an astounding amount of ground to cover when it comes to the band, but Wright is up for the job. Where in the hands of another director, a documentary with such a heavy workload might become tedious and tiring, Wright manages to instil each moment with a sense of wonder and fun. He cuts commentary with illustrative footage: when Ron and Russell talk about trying to get their band off the ground, we see comical footage of primitive planes making dubious attempts at flight. It’s as if Wright does all of the hard work for us, laboriously going out of his way to make his film as articulate and accessible as possible. Wright’s passion and admiration for the band are infectious, and it’s completely impossible not to get swept up in the exuberant whirlwind he creates. You could walk into this documentary having never heard a single Sparks song and come out as a Sparks superfan.
As per usual for an Edgar Wright joint, stunning sound design draws us in further, keeping us pumped throughout the lengthy saga. And, of course, with this being a Sparks documentary, Wright chooses a clever selection from their discography to illustrate the accompanying commentary and keep the momentum going throughout. This, alongside endlessly entertaining stop motion sequences, visual gags and crude animation, build a dynamic and larger than life portrait of a band that continue to defy the odds. The Sparks Brothers is a love letter not only to Sparks but to the music of the ’60s, ‘70s and ’80s, the bands who moulded generations, the songs that continue to keep us dancing and the artists who dare to go against the groove. Wright leaves no stone unturned as he excavates not only Sparks history but the men behind the music: the men who know both success and failure, work from a modest home studio, adore French cinema, collect snowglobes, are addicted to coffee, and, who love one another dearly.
The Sparks Brothers is pure, unyielding fun that zips along at a breakneck pace; it brims with an encyclopedic knowledge of music history and manages to dazzle and delight with every eccentric second.
The Sparks Brothers will screen as part of Sundance London 2021 on July 29th and open in cinemas on July 30th