‘The Sparks Brothers’ review: Edgar Wright’s joyous love letter to “your favorite band’s favorite band”
How do you properly tell the story of one of the most idiosyncratic bands of all time? A band 50 years running, with 25 albums and nearly 300 songs, Sparks have had a trajectory that's been anything but linear, and most die hard fans treasure the mystery surrounding them. The actor (and one time Phantom Planet drummer) Jason Schwartzman voices this early on in Director Edgar Wright’s lovely, loving, clever and comprehensive documentary The Sparks Brothers. which had its world premiere at the virtual edition of 2021 Sundance Film Festival over the weekend. Speaking for the many, Mr Schwartzman muses that part of him has no interest in watching this as its the mystery of the band that has been part of its appeal. (He also notes he'll watch it, though, 'cause he's in it.) The idea is central to this story of brothers Ron and Russell Mael.
Armed with a treasure trove of archival footage, both familiar and rare, playful animation, and so many of their wonderful songs that run throughout the film, The Sparks Brothers is largely told through the words of a dizzying array of band members past and present, ex managers, label heads, writers, musicians, other famous faces and, of course, Ron and Russell. The film follows their life and career, from growing up as music and movie obsessed kids in Southern California to their first band at UCLA in the late-'60s, through many highs and lows, twists and turns, and amazing music. It’s a tale of dogged determination, of always following your muse no matter where it takes you, and sticking to your guns even when met with indifference.
Sparks' career includes plenty of highs, such as the success of 1974’s masterpiece Kimono My House, a mash-up of bubblegum pop, glam rock and theatrical bombast which includes their classic single "This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us" which was a UK hit. (British audiences accepted Sparks much more readily than their home country.) There were plenty of low moments as well. In 1976, they gave the burgeoning punk scene a slam-bang with the well-received, hard-edged Big Beat but the next year, instead of capitalizing, they released the out-of-place -- and mocked-at-the-time -- slick pop of Introducing Sparks. To paraphrase what Ron says in the film, the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks was one of the greatest albums ever, it just wasn’t the music for them to make. They often had to deal with a pubic who couldn't get past their over-the-top sound and look, including some controversial facial hair (see the scene from a '70s TV talk show where the actress Shelley Winters cackles on about a group with "a guy with Hitler mustache" to a bemused Pete Townshend). Many just saw them as a joke. There were also ill fated movie attempts with directors Jacques Tati and Tim Burton. Through all the ups and downs though, Sparks kept going. “The one thing I'm proudest of most with Sparks is just our determination and resilience,” says Russell.
One of the most striking things about The Sparks Brothers is that besides the down moments, there is little to no conflict. Even ex-bandmates and managers who were fired and discarded (and there were many) show no ill will, seeming to know that the Maels had to follow their instincts and heart wherever it took them. If there were disgruntled exes interviewed they didn't make the cut of this film which falls entirely into the "love letter" category. The film's massive cast of notable Sparks fans who "get it" include Beck, members of Erasure, Duran Duran and New Order, Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman Palladino, Weird Al Yankovic, Flea, Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, and Neil Gaiman, as well as collaborators like Jane Wiedlin, Todd Rundgren, Tony Visconti, Giorgio Moroder, and many more. As the film says, they are your favorite band's favorite band.
All credit for this entertaining film goes to Edgar Wright, who manages to peek behind the curtain while still retaining the Maels' all-important mystery. At 2 hours and 20 minutes it achieves that rare combination of being comprehensive but not tiresome. It moves, baby, and also rewards staying though the end credits. The sly comedic wit of the Maels is seeped throughout the film and, importantly, makes the convincing case that Sparks quest for greatness has never wavered. The music they are making today (like 2017's Hippopotamus and last year's A Steady Drip, Drip Drip) is as vital and exciting as any from throughout their history. The Sparks Brothers is manna from heaven for rabid fans, and welcomes others to come on in and join the party. (It also offers a little preview of Annette, the musical film they made with director Leos Carax that stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard and will be out later this year.) As Russell jokes (maybe?), with a little medical engineering, there could be another 200-300 Sparks albums still to come. We can only hope.
There's been no release date announced for The Sparks Brothers, but Edgar says it's "Coming your way soon!" You can watch a two-minute "official clip" below.