The Sparks Brothers

Edgar Wright rock doc The Sparks Brothers is a love letter from a fan

An effective exploration of the long and storied career of art-pop glam cult duo Sparks.

It’s hard not to see Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers as part of a sort of mini-movement within the film world in which beloved, established directors make music documentaries about their favourite bands. These documentaries are events in themselves – they’re welcomed as equal parts celebrations of these cult bands and as a new work by their celebrated director. It’s true of Jim Jarmusch’s Stooges documentary, it’s true of Todd Haynes’s upcoming Velvet Underground documentary and it’s certainly true of Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers, which takes a look at the life and times of Ron and Russell Mael, two weirdo Californian brothers whose brand of art pop has made them a beloved cult act for over 50 years. The impetus behind a film like The Sparks Brothers is two-fold, I suspect: on one hand, it’s an opportunity for Wright to indulge in months and months of granular nerdery and in-depth audiovisual research about a band that clearly obsessed him. On the other hand, it’s a pretty nifty way to get people who have perhaps never even heard of Sparks before to watch a 140-minute movie about them, solely because the Scott Pilgrim guy made it.

If one could argue that most people who see Jim Jarmusch movies probably knew who the Stooges are, the same cannot exactly be said about Sparks. They’re a cult act hiding in plain sight, with many charting hits and a career spent almost exclusively on major labels and some level of pop stardom. This is no Searching for Sugarman, in other words; there is copious footage of Sparks performing on TV and a whole heaping lot of Sparks fans spread across the world, and yet it still feels like Edgar Wright is uncovering something completely unknown in many respects. 

The Sparks Brothers
Sparks in the 1980s

It must be said that Sparks’ popularity is more associated with England. Despite their origins as SoCal surfer dudes, the brand of affected operatic glam that the Mael brothers engaged in early in their careers (not to mention their eventual pivot to synthy new wave before everyone else caught on) is much more associated with British bands and British humour than anything happening stateside at the time. In that sense, it’s not that surprising that Wright is the one handling their feature-length sanctification. Even as an avowed music fan and particularly of leftfield / alternative music current from the 1960s on, my own knowledge of Sparks was pretty sparse. I own a copy of Kimono My House that I’ve listened to several times… and that’s about the extent of it. In that sense, The Sparks Brothers was a surprising experience for me since it’s about the only rock music doc released in recent years that I actually learned a ton from, even if it absolutely comes at you from a position of fawning fandom.

The structure of The Sparks Brothers is fairly straightforward. Through extensive present-day interviews with the Mael brothers, Wright traces their career chronologically, with near-constant input from a barrage of talking heads. It seems like Wright really pulled everyone out of his rolodex for this one, but I have to question the relevance of some of the interviewees included — famous people who are trotted out to say they love the band, only to never be seen again. The Maels are extremely forthcoming about their careers, dropping to some extent the personas they’ve developed over the years in interviews to give a fairly balanced assessment of their path through showbusiness. (This balance is not really shared by the talking heads, who more or less just defend every album and decision tooth and nail.) 

There isn’t a ton of the inherent drama of these types of documentaries contained in The Sparks Brothers. Famously secretive, the Maels say almost nothing of their personal lives and offer little insight into their existence outside of Sparks. Some of it certainly has to do with the fact that they seem to be rather reserved dudes, not exactly the sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll types, but it almost certainly also has to do with Wright’s dedication to telling the whole story. Too often these types of documentaries will gloss over wilderness years or periods that the subjects find less than optimal, but Wright at least dedicates himself to conveying the duo’s history without putting too much emphasis on the whole notion that “but what we’re doing NOW is really the best stuff we’ve ever done,” which does sneak in at times.

Suffice to say that the goal of The Sparks Brothers is to spread the gospel of the Maels’ extensive body of work, which it does admirably. Understanding that their entire oeuvre goes through tons of changes in style and tone, Wright presents a fairly diversified sampler plate of their work that does an admirable job selling a sometimes thorny sound. Like Frank Zappa, Sparks present a bizarrely affected mix of humour and virtuosic composition that can be off-putting and, frankly, impenetrable; I have no qualms in admitting that some of the most acclaimed bits of music in the whole documentary fly entirely over my head, but Wright makes the film zippy and accessible enough that you don’t spend the whole 140-minute runtime baffled at Russell Mael’s operatic flights of fancy and Ron Mael’s robotic synth rhythms. I’m not sure that The Sparks Brothers made an instant Sparks fan out of me, but it certainly set me on the path to figuring it out myself. ■

The Sparks Brothers opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, June 18. Watch the trailer here:

The Sparks Brothers by Edgar Wright

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