Edgar Wright knows all too well the enigmatic legacy of his subject matter with 'The Sparks Brothers.' As such, he wisely begins the film by giving us as the audience a baseline of the titular brothers through FAQs like "Who are Sparks?" and "How many Sparks albums are there?"
Is it pandering? Yes.
Did I, a woefully uncultured individual appreciate it through the lens of Edgar Wright's cheeky sense of direction? Also yes.
Let's go back to that initial question of "Who are Sparks?" Comprised of brothers Russell and Ron Mael (vocals and keyboards respectively), Sparks have been cranking out music since the early '70s, seemingly just out of reach from the mainstream, yet building a loyal and expansive following ever since. Artists like Nirvana, Depeche Mode and Bjork have cited the group's wild compositions, genre-bending antics, creative artistic direction and wily senses of humor as inspirational, and the group has been consistently cited as one of the most inventive pop acts of their time.
Prior to this documentary, I'll admit that the only exposure I had to Sparks was FFS, a 2015 collaboration album between them and Scottish rock band, Franz Ferdinand, that became an early quarantine favorite of mine (yes, I have a quarantine playlist, someday I'll share it out). But when I did investigate Sparks, between the sheer size of their discography and uniqueness of their style and history, I was worried I was never going to "get" what the band was going for, no matter how hard I tried.
So imagine my excitement when it was announced that, not only was a documentary of the band's entire history in the works, but it was to be helmed by Edgar Wright. As it turns out, Wright is a lifelong Sparks fan and the mind behind 'Shaun of the Dead' and 'Scott Pilgrim v. The World' seemed absolutely elated with the idea of exposing the duo's story to a wider audience. A daunting task to be sure, but as someone just scratching the surface of what this group was about, I was certainly intrigued, so what kind of madness does Edgar Wright deliver on 'The Sparks Brothers?'
I'll put it this way: if you've been a fan of the kind of quirky madness Edgar Wright has been delivering since the beginning, this is immediately going to be up your alley. But at the same time, Wright also knows exactly how to navigate over 50 years of history and context while giving the vibrant, ostentatious, and delightfully distinct subject matter the time it deserves. 'The Sparks Brothers' absolutely nails expectations, setting the record straight about a band who could never be pinned down as one particular thing and, in the process, making for a fantastically inspiring story of sibling connection and artistic integrity.
Despite popular mythology framing them as an undoubtably British band, Russell and Ron Mael grew up on the other side of the world in Los Angeles, California, loving movies, theater and music, particularly bands like The Who and The Rolling Stones. Initially forming as "Halfnelson," they came to the attention of musician Todd Rundgren, who helped them sign a record a deal. After their first two albums underperformed, they conceded to an image change from their label, changing their names to Sparks and pushing for promotion in the United Kingdom where their sound might have been more accepted.
As it turns out, the concept worked out incredibly well for the band. Their third album, Kimono My House, struck a chord with European audiences, especially after a massively successful performance on Britain's 'Top of the Pops.' From there, the group's history becomes a rollercoaster of highs and lows, from their electronic pivot in the 1980s, to the band's mid-90s comeback, and even 2008's "Sparks Spectacular," an ambitious stretch of concerts each covering the entirety of one of the group's 21 albums.
Utilizing quirky editing, never-before-seen archival footage, and a mix of papier-mâché and animated reenactments, Edgar Wright attempts to condense the brothers five decades of musical adventures. The documentary also features extensive interviews from the Mael brothers themselves and guests ranging from producers Giorgio Moroder and Tony Visconti to admirers like author Neil Gaiman, The Go-Go's Jane Wiedlin and Bleachers' Jack Antonoff.
Every corner of 'The Sparks Brothers' is brimming with a distinct sheen of joy and that infectious energy might be the film's greatest strength. This is Edgar Wright's first documentary project and while I certainly had some questions of style over substance going in, those fears were quickly dispersed. Wright certainly has love for the music of Sparks and the Mael brothers as people, but he also knows the context and legacy needed to contextualize this story for new and old fans alike.
Sparks were (and still are) a band whose taste for killer hooks was only matched by their wonderfully self-deprecating lyrics and passion for all things baroque and wild. It's almost hard to look at the film and think "wow, in the hands of a less passionate, less capable director, this could get really pretentious REALLY fast."
The secret is that Wright understands that kind of humble passion from both the brothers and the countless interviews he manages to source and that picture suddenly becomes a lot more than just another retrospective glory fest.
(*There's also the coincidence of both parties releasing films this year, with Wright's 'Last Night in Soho' set for an October release and the Mael brothers' 'Annette' set to debut at the Cannes Film Festival)
The Mael brothers themselves are the absolute heart of this documentary and it's almost immediately that any aura of pompousness fades away. To some, sure, they're icons, but in Wright's lens, Russell and Ron are just two brothers who are hilariously entertaining, love working with one another, and just kind of wind up creating pop classics in their wake. Transitioning from '80s synth pop ("Tryouts for the Human Race") to borderline opera ("Dick Around") should not be a clear musical journey, but that's just who these guys are and they revel in it.
As for that cavalcade of guests, it's a bit refreshing to not hear some big mic drop from behind the scenes as sometimes happens in music documentaries. Everyone from The Sex Pistols' Steve Jones to 'Yo Gabba Gabba's Lance Robertson are simply fans, all part of Wright's slightly epic unraveling of the Sparks timeline.
That's just the main stuff because of course a Sparks documentary wouldn't stop there. Everything is thrown against the wall from modern-day re-enactments of the brothers' early surfer years to hand-drawn 'Beavis and Butthead' adjacent animation to some absolutely gorgeous stop-motion bits (courtesy of the band's collaborator, Joseph Wallace). It might seem like a bit much, but when the subject matter is a pair of brothers obsessed with trying anything and everything, it kind of works.
There are certainly a few things that I wish were tackled a bit further (there's certainly the runtime to do it). The most significant is that there's very little of the brothers actually making music, as a lot of the documentary is focused elsewhere on chart success (or lack thereof), artistic passions, and how the pop world just didn't "get" the band. The counter to that is the film's insistence that the brothers simply work as they do, that the music will just come as it will, but for a film intent on engaging with an audience, I can see that not appealing to everyone, especially if Wright's party popper approach doesn't hook you.
The trailer for 'The Sparks Brothers' proclaims "they are a band you could look up on Wikipedia and know nothing" and, as a relative newcomer, I'm inclined to agree. So much of what makes Spark special kind of gets lost in the academia of history and leave it to Edgar Wright to give the Mael brothers a space for the nuance of their art to shine through.
Is there some missed potential in the framing? Maybe, but I can let a lot of that go when the results are not only vital storytelling to pop history, but just thoroughly entertaining and endearing. If you're a music nerd and this band flew completely off of your radar, this is the perfectly weird, immensely hummable and weirdly charming journey to start with.
Overall, I give 'The Sparks Brothers' 9/10.
'The Sparks Brothers' will be available in theaters starting June 18th.
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