Edgar Wright’s films have always been palpably clever, energetic, and they revel in existing outside of clear genre lines. It’s a natural fit, then, that his first documentary would focus on the art pop duo Sparks, a palpably clever and energetic band who revel in existing outside clear genre lines.
Those who know and love Sparks should prepare for 135 minutes of archival ecstasy, as Wright’s The Sparks Brothers is a beat-by-beat close read of Ron and Russell Mael’s career from their late 1960s college experiments to today. Newcomers to this beloved cult group, which is certainly most people, especially in the United States, will find that Wright’s technique swiftly knocks down the barriers of entry with 50 years of material. The reason why some people are absolutely in love with Sparks is that Sparks are fun, and you just have to hear it and see it to get it.
Ron, 75, and Russell, 73, were born in the Los Angeles area, even though they’ve been mistaken for British for most of their careers. Their father, who was an artist and illustrator, died when they were young, and their doting mother was cool enough to take them to see The Beatles twice. As they got interested in music Ron, the thinner and perhaps weirder one, wrote most of the tunes. He plays keyboards and for years sported what was either a Charlie Chaplin or Adolf Hitler mustache, depending on how you wanted to read it. Russell had more typical rock god looks, and their first albums differentiated themselves with rich, humorous lyrics and instantly catchy melodies.
They sounded a bit like The Kinks and Roxy Music, and soon found more success in the UK than back home. There was also an element of camp to their whole career — “are they kidding with this?” is a question that hangs over so much of their best work. The single This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us from the 1974 album Kimono My House nearly out-Queens Queen with its operatic bombast. Their Top of the Pops debut was one of those life-changing television broadcasts for people looking for unconventional music acts.
But whenever they got into a groove, whether it connected with audiences or not, they were driven to change direction. Their vaudevillian pop with producer Todd Rundgren turned to a grander, studio-symphony sound with producer Tony Visconti. As the punk and No Wave scene was happening they relocated to New York, then ditched that to collaborate with Giorgio Moroder for 1979’s No. 1 in Heaven, one of the first all-synthesizer pop-rock albums. Later albums grew even more difficult to describe. Some had a minor hit or two, others went straight into obscurity. But their frugal living and determination prevented them from ever retiring as the legend just grew.
Edgar Wright’s movie is more than just a typical portrait of artists. While the structure is quite rigid (all 25 Sparks albums get their bullet point) the formality allows Wright and the Maels to color outside the lines. The Sparks Brothers employs stop motion and 2D animation, reenactment video, cheeky “lower third” graphics, props and even moving cameras during talking head videos. Wright knows some people won’t want to watch a long documentary about a band they’ve never heard of, so he’s sure to keep it funny and alive at every possible turn.
With Sparks being “musician’s musicians” there’s no shortage of luminaries eager to sing their praises. (Beck, Flea, “Weird Al” Yankovic and Jonathan Ross are just the tip of the iceberg here.) What’s strange, though, is that the film seems a little uneasy about getting to know the Maels beyond their personas.
Part of their whole mystique is how mercurial they are, but Wright seems, at the beginning, to announce that we’ll finally get to know these guys. One of the first questions seems the most personal: whether they are gay or straight. (They are straight.) But other than a small period in time when Russell dated Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s, we don’t hear a thing about other relationships. It is also baffling that not once in this movie is it mentioned that the Maels are Jewish. They were born just years after the Holocaust to parents named Meyer and Miriam, and have steadily devoted their lives to being outsider artists. For year’s Ron was described as “that Hitler guy.” You’d think at some point during this extremely in-depth documentary the topic would come up.
But we do watch the pair work at a humble home studio, learn Russell’s coffee order and see Ron’s snow globe collection. This is a film that loves its subjects and only someone with a biological revulsion to catchy pop or grand rock theatrics will dislike the film. For most, Sparks is uncharted territory. Luckily there’s a lot to explore.