Imagine a band which has been in business for five decades, producing a catalogue comprising 25 albums and 345 songs. A band which has had multiple hits around the world. A band which has collaborated with diverse musical artists such as Erasure, Faith No More, Jimmy Somerville, Franz Ferdinand, and Giorgio Moroder. A band which, despite all this, has still managed to avoid being a sustained mainstream success, a fact which it wears as a badge of honour.
American brothers Ron and Russell Mael – better known as Sparks – have been busy creating their own brand of music for 50 years, never having to be concerned about being on trend, as they have steadfastly ploughed their own special and unique creative furrow, attracting a devoted following and cult status. Having remained something of an enigma for half a century now, the brothers Mael have finally had a documentary devoted to their lives and work, all thanks to a dedicated fan: filmmaker Edgar Wright.
Best known for his work with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost on the ‘Three Flavours Cornetto’ trilogy, plus Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and Baby Driver, Wright has been an admirer of Sparks since boyhood. He came close to using a Sparks track – ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us’ – in Hot Fuzz for the climactic fight sequence between Simon Pegg and Timothy Dalton in Sandford Model Village, but felt that it was pulling focus from the action, as he was concentrating on the music rather than the visuals.
One day, Wright found that Sparks followed him on Twitter, so he sent them a message, and was surprised to find that it was actually run by the brothers directly, instead of having a PR agency or interns doing all the tweeting. After starting a dialogue with the duo, Wright went on to form a friendship with the Maels, and eventually broached the idea of making a documentary – Wright’s first – all about Sparks, to tell their story, as well as giving an overview of their body of work, and offering some context to the band’s place in the pantheon of modern music.
Ron and Russell – as well as some of their fanbase – did have some reservations about a documentary feature about them, for fear that peeling back the layers may ruin some of the mystique which surrounds Sparks, as showing too much of the men behind the curtain might spoil things, like being shown how a magic trick works. The Maels have spent a long time cultivating a distinctive public and professional image, from Russell’s being the face of the group with the powerful range and androgynous voice, to Ron’s Hitler/Chaplin ‘tache and unsettling, off-kilter performance art persona, which – much like their music – always pulls focus.
Fortunately, The Sparks Brothers does manage to satisfy on all levels, by not only protecting the allure and fascination of Sparks, but also giving newcomers an insightful look at the band and their significance, as well as delivering lots of new information about the pair for longtime followers. This is a film for a diverse audience, and it would be a huge surprise if anybody came away feeling unsatisfied by what Wright has managed to put together. Much like Sparks themselves, the documentary is funny, anarchic, energetic, joyous, and just a sheer, unfettered delight.
Wright has managed to assemble a very impressive range of contributors for the ‘talking head’ interviews, ranging from members of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Duran Duran, and Suede, to ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, Mark Gatiss, Neil Gaiman, Beck, Mike Myers, Jonathan Ross, Jason Schwartzman, Patton Oswalt, and far too many others to mention here. Not only does this show the sheer breadth and diversity of Sparks’ appeal, but it also indicates from the perspective of the musicians just how influential the band has been, and showing just why such an appreciation of their work is needed.
In fact, the film’s poster perhaps sums things up best as well as most succinctly, with the tagline of: “Your favourite band’s favourite band”. The band has always possessed something of a British sensibility, with their atypical performance style and askew perspective seeming almost antithetical to what American pop and rock music tends to deliver. It does make it a real treat, then, to see material of Sparks from their UK TV appearances with Terry Wogan and Gloria Hunniford, as well as on shows like TV-AM, The Big Breakfast, and Top Of The Pops.
As well as a breadth of archive TV material from right across the globe, Wright has also made effective use of period stock footage to illustrate the various eras from Ron and Russell’s lives, and – where nothing suitable exists – he has employed stop motion and conventional animation in order to be able to keep things visually arresting. Wright shows he is far more than just his trademark fast cutting (although he still makes use of it here where needed), serving a compelling narrative with a whistlestop tour of Sparks’ output, and showing us all just why they are so rightly beloved.
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Although the documentary clocks in at 140 minutes, due to the pace of the piece it actually makes you feel like it could have easily run to three hours, and still felt neither lumpen nor leaden. The biggest tribute to Wright’s picture is that it should actually inspire a whole new audience to go discover Sparks’ back catalogue for the very first time, and it helps to give some long overdue attention and prominence to a truly unique and sadly overlooked shared talent of the remarkable duo, whose achievements really need celebrating.
As far as Ron and Russell are concerned, Edgar Wright’s film has perfectly captured the Maelstrom, and shows that – as far as the Sparks brothers are concerned – this movie is big enough for the both of them.
The Sparks Brothers is out now in Cinemas.