"I've never used a Sparks song in one of my movies," says Edgar Wright, maker of films with great soundtracks like Baby Driver and The World's End, says of his favorite band. "And I'll tell you why. Sparks songs are so kind of attention grabbing, and they grab you by the lapels, that it's not easy to have Sparks in the background of a scene."
To rectify this, Wright ended up making a documentary about them, The Sparks Brothers, which is a real cinematic love letter to the band, brothers Ron and Russell Mael, covering their 50 years and 25 albums worth of idiosyncratic pop to date. Made over three years, the documentary features tons of rare archival footage, new interviews with Ron and Russell, plus testimonials from former bandmates, previous collaborators and famous fans, including Beck, Weird Al Yankovic, Mike Myers, Neil Gaiman, Amy Sherman Palladino , members of Erasure, New Order, Duran Duran, and many more. Wright interviewed nearly 100 people for the film!
The Sparks Brothers had its world premiere at the virtual 2021 edition of the Sundance Film Festival and will be out for everyone to see later this year. We got a chance to talk with Edgar via Zoom about his love of Sparks, how he came to make this movie, maintaining the Maels' mystery, and a lot more. Read our interview below.
If you're new to the world of Sparks, Edgar's film is a great introduction. While you wait for that to be released you can listen to the "Sparks for Beginners" Spotify playlist that Edgar made for the crew of the film. That, along with a two-minute clip from The Sparks Brothers, is below as well.
Well, first of all, I want to say congratulations on a really exceptional, exceptional piece of work. I'm a huge Sparks fan. I don't think I could have asked for more.
Thank you. That's the best review I could get from a Sparks fan.
I have to say I was a little taken aback when i saw the (140 minute) running time, but then I thought to myself, "You know what? That's probably what's needed to be thorough and to take them through their entire career."
When I was editing the movie, we had so much stuff. And I felt like, if I don't do the comprehensive story, it will always nag at me that I didn't tell the whole story. So there was a certain point where I felt like we should cover every album because the thing with Sparks is it's not that traditional rise and fall and rise. Their entire career is going up and down all the time, sometimes from one year to the next. So to leave out some of the lesser-known albums would be disingenuous. I just felt I had to tell the whole story. So there was a certain point where it's like this is it. It's a 50-year career and beyond that, also, because you're introducing people to Sparks as much as it's a celebration for you and I, as fans. So with that in mind, you have to give it the full context and also, crucially, unlike a lot of music documentaries, hear a little bit of the songs as well. One of my pet hates in music docs is where they just assume that you know all the songs and just kind of skip through them.
Also, the records they're making now -- A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, Hippopotamus, Lil' Beethoven -- those are just as vital as the ones they were making in the early seventies. I mean, there's really no... I mean, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip is a wonderful piece of work.
I would argue, in a way, from Lil' Beethoven onwards, it is sort of like Sparks' golden period is now. They've ascended to this level where they don't have to be anybody other than themselves. And they kind of comfortable in that. And their fan base either sort of just wants them to be there or they're just waiting for an audience to catch up. I think there's a thing like, not that they ever really chase trends, Sparks. It was more that they happened to fall in line with something else that people like or is something that even is ahead of its time. 'm sure, in a Rolling Stones or a Who documentary -- and I love both of those bands -- people are less interested in the modern stuff. They just want to hear the '60s stories and the early set-in-the-'70s stories. But with Sparks, it's a whole journey of them getting from 1971 to 2021.
Like you were saying, they fell in line with trends. In the UK when they played Top of the Pops and The Old Grey Whistle Test. It's like the story of the Sex Pistols show in Manchester where everyone that saw it started a band.
Obviously, it's Top of the Pops, specifically, I think, the first time they were on Top of the Pops. If you, just in the documentary, you think about sitting at home, watching that episode, are Duran Duran, Joy Division, the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Squeeze, Depeche Mode. It's just all of the next generation of people are all watching the same thing. In this day and age, it would be very difficult to debut on a show and have a third of the nation watching. I don't think that day might ever come again. But that's what Top of the Pops used to be. Back then, there were only three channels. So you can have 15 million people watching the show. 20 million, sometimes.
I think you said in the documentary that your entryway into Sparks was No. 1 In Heaven, that period.
I was five. And when I say that, it's not like I was a music nerd at five, but I remember seeing them on Top of the Pops. I don't think it was an unforgettable image. And then, separately from that, my parents, around that time, my mum would buy me seven inches with pocket money and stuff. But I definitely had a chart compilation from 1979 which had "Beat the Clock" on it. And then, the year after, there was another compilation which had "When I'm With You" on it. So, for a long, long time, those were the two Sparks songs that I had on vinyl. And maybe it was later, when I was a teenager listening to Roxy Music and David Bowie and Queen and T-Rex, then I'd occasionally get glam rock compilations that would have a Sparks song on them. I was confused, because it wasn't like Giorgio Moroder era Sparks. This is like "Girl From Germany" and "This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us." So it's like, "Huh. This is the same band that did "Beat the Clock," but it doesn't quite sound the same. The voice is similar." This is all in the pre-internet age, where you only could rely on what was right in front of you, what was on the TV, what was on the radio. I don't remember, until I went to art college, ever buying a music magazine. I definitely never bought NME growing up. And I don't think I ever bought any of the other music magazines.
You'd just happen across them.
You'd rely on what was in the record shop, and the record shop might have zero Sparks albums. Or occasionally, at the local library, there might be a book about music. So in my local library, they had the Guinness Book of Hit Singles. And so I could, at least, look and see what Sparks songs had charted in the UK. But beyond that, until they came back in the mid-nineties, with "When Do I Have to Sing My Way," and suddenly they're back on... because the whole New Wave eighties period was not a success in the UK. So, weirdly, the albums that people of a certain age in the States know, like Whomp The Sucker, Angst in My Pants, and In Outer Space, were not hits in the UK. And none of those singles were either. So that's one of the reasons for making the documentary, I felt that the thing that was stopping Sparks from being as famous as they should be is that there needed to be a little overview. You can obviously enjoy the music, but to really understand the band, you just need a little bit of context to get who they are, where they were, and how it's very unusual for one band to have different followings in different decades in different countries.
My entry point was seeing them in Rollercoaster.
I would say I watched Rollercoaster as a kid, and I seem to remember enjoying it when I was a kid. But upon revisiting it, I'm not so sure I would sort of stump for Rollercoaster that much. Do you know the story? There's something that's not in the documentary that's a great story. Do you know who Sparks replaced on Rollercoaster? I mean the more obvious band that would have been in that slot in 1977. It was supposed to be KISS.
Yeah. So Sparks were a last-minute replacement for KISS, because KISS were going to do KISS Meets the Phantom in the Park. And so Sparks came in at the last minute. What's funny, when you see them in Rollercoaster, is they're sort of a lot more macho than they usually are. It's in that Big Beat phase, where Russell's got his wife beater on and he's showing off his muscles. And it's very, very different to sort of the androgyny of the UK period.
So how did this, the documentary, start? How do you put this together? Because I assume, obviously, it's different than a feature. How did you come about to start putting this all together?
Well, I think, in a way, I'd started to become a really hardcore Sparks fan, I guess, in the wake of Lil' Beethoven. And they'd always been a band that I liked, and liked the classic albums. But then I think I just became more and more impressed with them in that they were basically operating sort of like a current band. They weren't a legacy band. They weren't resting on their laurels. They were sort of pushing out new music every couple of years. And it was impressive because it was, if not getting better, or at least as good, like you said, as good as their '70s stuff. So I had come to know Ron and Russell by literally following them on Twitter. They were already following me, which was, for people who were these enigmatic, mysterious figures in my life, was wild. I'd met them in Los Angeles. And then, I guess, when you're a Sparks fan, you sort of become an evangelist. And I had said aloud, "I'm not necessarily actively thinking about doing a documentary," but I had said aloud a number of times to friends, "The only thing stopping Sparks from being as big as they could be is there should be a documentary about them."
You were secretly preaching to yourself.
At a Sparks gig in 2017, I went to see Sparks with the director Phil Lord. And when I said my pitch, like, "Sparks are the best and most influential brand that don't have a documentary about them in life. If they had a documentary about them, it would really like tip the scales, and everybody would understand their genius." And Phil was like, "Well, you should make that movie." And I was like, "Yeah, I will." And then, after the gig, I said to Ron and Russell, "Hey, has anybody ever approached you about doing a documentary?" And they said, "Well, they have, and we've always been hesitant about it, but if you wanted to do it, then that would be amazing." And I said, "I do want to do it." And then that was three years ago. Once I'd made the promise, then I had to make good on my promise. Obviously, I told my producer first, Nira Park. I said, "I think I want to make a documentary about Sparks." And then, MRC, who financed the movie and had done Baby Driver, they had just started a documentary wing. So it was quite easy for me to hold my hand up and say, "Hey, I want to make a documentary." I knew that I wanted to make it an oral history. And I figured that, beyond Ron and Russell, the great thing about it is that they had so many interesting people that they'd worked with, as well as lots of famous fans. I mean, fans in other artists who have gone on to greater fame than Sparks. And I thought, in a way, that that was an interesting aspect in itself. If you've never heard of Sparks, you've heard of at least 70% of the interviewees. So then it's an interesting thing for people to watch. And they sort of then see, oh, this one band influenced this very diverse group of musical artists.
As the line goes in the movie, your favorite band's favorite band.
Yeah. So I think that was how it kind of started, I was just kind of trying to figure out the scope of it. There's an enormous amount of archival footage of Sparks, but then, even beyond that, we found new stuff because we put the word out. As soon as I announced I was doing it, we put the word out, said, "Do you have photos of Sparks? Do you have any footage? Do you have any good stories?" I just wanted to tell a really wide-ranging story where, rather than it just being Ron and Russell sitting in front of some disks or at a recording studio, sitting in front of the mixing desk, I could sort of interview everybody involved in Sparks at every level, so from them and their producers to a stage invader from 1975, somebody who jumps up on stage and hugs Ron, a 14 year old, and interview her now. That thing of being able to kind of speak to people that Sparks have sort of moved in different ways, from all different walks of life, was really the key.
So I conducted 80 interviews total, and I did them all myself. And that took place in London, New York, LA. And then, I went around the world with them a little bit, into Japan and Mexico, and shot them in London and Los Angeles as well. So I guess it was a different process from doing one of my normal features, because it's just a longer, more wide-ranging process. And things would come up organically. It's like, "Hey, they're playing in Japan. We should go to Japan with them." Stuff like that. It was already kind of ambitious in scope, and I guess it got kind of bigger. But then, I think that's the thing that maybe, I hope you'd agree, it's kind of a very fast-paced kind of storytelling, and part of that is because you've got so many different types of people telling the story.
I loved the wide net you cast, all the people that you got. I'm wondering, is there anyone that you didn't get to interview that you wish you had or you couldn't get?
I don't really want to put that in print because then, always, it becomes the lede is like, "Ah, he wanted to get so-and-so." I mean, there's a couple of people who were really big that had expressed an interest in doing it, but then actually pinning them down was another matter. And I think, probably for a very long time, I was trying to secure those interviews. But then, as it was coming together, I felt, "You know what? This is what it's meant to be. We've got great people."
You interviewed my old friend Sal Maida who played in the Big Beat era of the band.
Oh, yeah. He's great. I think Ron and Russell were sort of dumbfounded by the breadth of the interviews, as well, because there's some people that they hadn't spoken to for years. I mean, they had not seen Todd Rundgren since 1972, and I got to re-introduce...this might be something that eventually goes on a DVD extra, but I got to re-introduce them on camera because they hadn't seen each other in that long, which is kind of wild. And that was amazing, and it was a very sweet thing to witness because, very quickly, they got back to kind of just joking around, like they obviously had done 45 years before. Crazy.
With all these former band members, it didn't seem like there was any ill will or bad blood.
I think there's not much bitterness there because Ron and Russell have gone on to do what they've done. If they'd have sacked a band member or let them go, and then the next album had flopped and they'd ended, that person would be within their rights to go, "Ha, ha, ha. You should have kept me in." But the work speaks for itself. And I think that was something that I was really moved by, is that we interviewed quite a few people who were members of the band and then were let go or were let go because Ron and Russell wanted to move on. And like you said, there was no ill will. I think people, ultimately, especially now, are just happy to be part of the story. I found that really moving. It was especially great talking to from Halfnelson, the first incarnation, including Ron and Russell, we spoke to four of the five guys and Todd Rundgren, the producer, and the engineer, Jim Lowe, and Larry DuPont, who was their kind of tour manager, and their original manager as well. So to kind of have the access to all of those people was wild. They were there at the inception of it all, but also they've got to...I mean, they're still friends in terms of those guys who will turn up at a more recent gig. And I think that's a very sweet thing. And that only speaks to the fact that I don't think any of those guys can truly be kind of upset. I'm sure some of those guys probably think, if you just said to them back then, "Hey, do you still want to be playing in Sparks in 2021?" They'd be like, "I don't want to be playing at all in 2021." So, I know, because all of those people, Sal, Hilly Michaels, they're all just happy to be a part of the story, which is very sweet.
I was struck by Jason Schwartzman's line about not wanting to see a documentary about Sparks because part of the magic is the mystery.
We were conscious of that, but at the end of the day, it's not like that stuff hasn't been sort of hinted at in other interviews and stuff. But I also feel that Ron and Russell...maybe they don't kind of parade around like Freddie Mercury or Bowie would have in their heyday. But in a weird way, the fact that Ron and Russell are actually so close in real life to their kind of persona on stage, it actually is one of those weird things where they say, "Don't meet your heroes." But I feel Ron and Russell did not disappoint because it feels like they are Sparks, 24/7. And in fact, I think the sort of total, as people say, commitment to the bit...I don't think it isn't even a bit anymore. I think Russell says something along these lines. It's like, at this point, they don't know where Ron and Russell end and Sparks start. And I think that's probably very sort of true. And, if anything, when you see some of the stuff of them in LA, doing relatively everyday, mundane things, that, for me, makes the music and the art that they create even more impressive.
It's that kind of Einstein thing, that Einstein ate the same thing every day, wore the same thing every day, because he wanted to put all of his mental focus into his work. And I feel like Ron and Russell are the same. It's not a kind of monastic lifestyle, but they give everything to their art. And I find that truly inspiring. Without giving anything away, we decide, at the end of the movie, to kind of pump out a bunch of other bullshit to keep it going for the next 50 years.
That was great. I was thinking before watching the film, and thinking about other siblings in bands. You watch a documentary like Supersonic about Oasis, and it's just anger. And this is really love.
I think, and maybe this stems back to their father dying when they're very young, that Ron and Russell have relied on each other for a long time. I think there's maybe something in that. But ultimately what it's about is, unlike other people you could mention, like Oasis or the Bee Gees or the Kinks, it's like there's not any competition between Ron and Russell, because there's this respect, mutual respect, and acceptance that what one can do, the other cannot. Ron, I think, really beautifully says at the end is like, "I could never be the front man. If I was on my own, I just couldn't do this. I wouldn't know how to kind of operate." In other situations like this, there's usually sort of both brothers want to be the star, like Dave Davies wants to be singing lead vocals and he wants to be songwriting, or Noel Gallagher and Liam Gallagher have literally split off and become separate entities. And Barry Gibb and Robin Gibb certainly sort of at loggerheads of who's the star. Maurice Gibb is more like the Derek Smalls in the middle, and he seems like the nice one.
You saw the Bee Gees documentary, obviously.
I thought it was really good. The one thing...and listen, [Bee Gees director] Frank Marshall's a friend of mine, so I'm not going to say anything critical about it. But the only thing I'd say, in respect to this, is, I was like, "Oh, I wanted to hear about that Sergeant Pepper film." The thing that I tried to do in this movie --- which kind of accounts for its proper feature length -- the misses are as fascinating, if not more so, than the hits. Talking about albums that are released to complete indifference at the time. And then, for Ron and Russell, they found it really quite moving. For example, 1978's Introducing, which is probably nobody's favorite Sparks album and, at the time, made minimal, maybe sub-zero, impact -- enough that they had to do a total reinvention afterwards. Then Ron and Russell watch the documentary and find Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers waxing lyrical about Introducing being his favorite Sparks album, knowing the lyrics off by heart. And Ron and Russell were like, "Wow." That's the thing is that, when you have a career this long, at a certain point, they just don't have to prove themselves anymore. And that's a sort of a beautiful place to be. They've sort of achieved, if not maybe the mainstream acceptance that they deserve, they have so much respect within the industry because they never stopped being them. And I think that's really beautiful.