“Edgar Wright’s pop doc is guaranteed to, ahem, spark joy”3 min read
“Your favourite band’s favourite band” is how Edgar Wright describes legendary pop and rock duo Sparks. It’s a claim that’s easy to believe after taking in Wright’s infectiously joyous celebration of brothers Ron and Russel Mael, which features a series of musical icons – from Beck and Bjork to Flea and Franz Ferdinand – waxing lyrical about Sparks’ overlooked influence. Crucially, while there’s plenty here that fans of the famously enigmatic pair may be learning for the first time thanks to Wright’s exhaustive access, it’s a documentary that doubles as an accessible, breezy introduction to a band you may never have heard of, and a springboard to further explore their celebrated back catalogue.
Because the paradox of Sparks is that – despite the fact they’ve recorded 870 songs across 25 albums over 50+ years, and achieved significant levels of success around the world doing so (they’re literally big in Japan), Ron and Russell are far from household names. Wright digs into precisely why that is, through a chronicle of their journey from forming as halfnelson in 1968, to their upcoming collaboration with Leos Carax on his long-awaited musical Annette, starring Adam Driver.
The working theory is that Sparks were just too weird, too singular, and too committed to their art to chase the kind of hits that could have given them recognition to rival T-Rex or The Beatles. While always taking the music seriously, Sparks were happy to have fun at the expense of their image (another issue – they were often mistaken for a novelty band thanks in part to Ron’s outrageous Hitler/Charlie Chaplain moustache). Wright’s doc takes a similar approach, with an extremely game Ron and Russell participating throughout, as the Baby Driver director gently pokes at the trad music doc format. Animated interludes are deployed where archive footage is unavailable, for example, while the talking head credits are a constant source of amusement, labelling beloved comedy actor Mike Myers’ as simply a “Canadian” or Wright himself, who not only contributes in front of the camera but narrates the opening sequence, as a “Fanboy”.
The Sparks Brothers may be a celebration first and foremost, but it doesn’t overlook the fact that Sparks reckoned with commercial failure across their career. For every breakout single (‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For the Both of Us’) or trend-setting album (transformative disco-era record ‘No. 1 In Heaven’, on which they collaborated with famed producer Giorgio Moroder) there were literally dozens of songs which went unnoticed by all but the most ardent of fans. After releasing an album every 12-24 months since the early 1970s, the low point comes during the six-year gap between 1988’s Interior Design and 1994’s Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins. It may be a film that doesn’t have a bad word to say about the brothers (that’s, you suspect, because there isn’t a bad word to say about them) but it’s not blind to their shortcomings either.
The film itself comes up short in some key respects. Clocking in at two hours and twenty minutes means it slightly outstays its welcome – a more ruthless edit may have allowed the slightly baggy middle stretch to sail by without incident. Perhaps more critically, it’s a documentary that focuses on the impact and influence of the brothers’ music above all else. Their childhoods are briefly covered, but there’s scant insight into their personal lives beyond Russell’s brief relationship with The Go-Go’s Jane Wiedlin. While the film gives a full picture of who Sparks are as artists, as people they remain enigmas.
This has not been done without purpose – part of Sparks’ appeal, the brothers believe, is that fans know precious little about who they are beyond their music. And there’s no question that the music here speaks for itself. Whether you were in the audience when Sparks performed every single one of their albums from start to finish across 21 consecutive nights, or this is your first exposure to the Mael brothers Wright’s film is guaranteed to, ahem, spark joy.
For more Sundance coverage, be sure to check out our Sundance 2021 preview on all the must-see movies from this year’s festival.