Ron and Russell Mael have been making genre-defying music for nearly 50 years as the band Sparks. Even with their incredible longevity, Sparks remains something of a cult oddity, the kind of band obsessed over by musicians and music nerds. The unusual stylings and the unusual career arc of the Mael Brothers is the subject of the first documentary by director Edgar Wright, The Sparks Brothers. In his first foray as a non-fiction filmmaker, Edgar Wright delivers exactly what he set out to do in telling the story of Sparks. The Sparks Brothers is a documentary that will please the hardcore fans of the band (like myself) as well as offering a compelling, often funny introduction for those unfamiliar with the Brothers Mael.
After a quick introduction that introduces the band and their music in broad strokes, Wright tells a rather straightforward narrative about Sparks. Ron and Russell recall their youth in Southern California, dispensing personal details that might surprise some of the band’s most ardent fans. These recollections of their formative years gives Ron and Russell plenty of room to articulate how their various styles and themes are informed by pop music, movies, and family. While the two were attending UCLA, they started to play music and recorded their first song in 1967 under the name Urban Renewal Project. Eventually, the band would be come to be known as Halfnelson and caught the attention of producer Todd Rundgren. After releasing their debut album as Halfnelson, the album sold poorly and the band was renamed to Sparks; the name settled on after Ron and Russell rejected the name The Sparks Brothers.
The Sparks Brothers goes through the 25 album discography of the band in chronological order, examining the creative process behind these unique records as well as exploring the stops and starts of Sparks’ quest for success. Wright gets Ron and Russell to explain their work but also brings in interviews with the bands collaborators, contemporaries, and famous fans. The way Wright goes through the career of Sparks creates a fascinating portrait of a band that is successful but never a smash; influential but often overlooked. Perhaps most fascinating is the way the band’s boundless artistic ambition seemed to hamper their commercial success. Sparks would often follow a moment of success with a shift in musical styles, artistically paying dividends though not tearing up the charts.
As The Sparks Brothers celebrates the Mael Brothers’ creativity and persistence, Wright is also exploring why Sparks failed to really latch onto the cultural zeitgeist despite these moments that are seemingly breakthroughs. Nobody is out making excuses as to why Sparks isn’t the biggest band ever. Quite the opposite, actually. The film makes the case that despite their obvious greatness Sparks would never be a smash hit because they defy expectations, too musically daring and lyrically challenging to garner the widest possible audience. But the film doesn’t seem to lament the downturns that occurred in the career of Sparks with many interview subjects making the case that Sparks is truly special because they’re too weird for the masses.
There are a number of fascinating tidbits about the Mael Brothers in The Sparks Brothers. There are stories about the music business and the difficulties faced by a band that isn’t easily categorized. There are stories about the movies of their youth and how their music is heavily influenced by cinema. Then there are the attempts at breaking into the movies that leave Sparks fans with some of the most incredible what-ifs imaginable. At one point the brothers were going to work with legendary French director Jacques Tati, only for the director’s poor health to derail the project. Then there was a musical they had written with Tim Burton attached to direct, which also fell apart. Eventually, Sparks do find their way into the movies with their upcoming musical directed by French director Leos Carax, Annette, which is set to premiere later this year and stars Adam Driver. The film ends on an upbeat note, with Sparks amidst a creative revival (not that they ever stopped) with their most recent albums Hippopotamus and A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, their artistic persistence not granting them international stardom but giving them the means to follow their vision unimpeded by record label considerations.
Edgar Wright set out as a fan and a filmmaker to make the definitive portrait of Sparks, and with The Sparks Brothers he has succeeded tremendously. The Spark Brothers captures the spirit of the band, the quirky sense of humor and daring artistic sensibilities. It was made through the lens of a hardcore fan wanting to celebrate his favorite band, and the film most certainly does that. It also works as a crash course for those uninitiated into the world of Sparks. But beyond simply celebrating the band, Wright uses The Sparks Brothers to celebrate the creative process. The Sparks Brothers does run a bit long at around 135 minutes, but that’s simply because there’s so much to the story of Sparks and Wright isn’t going to omit or gloss over any aspect of this band’s incredible career for the sake of brevity – they’ve been overlooked enough. As is clear from the entirety of The Sparks Brothers, Ron and Russell Mael aren’t going anywhere. They’ll continue making the music that they want to make. Thanks to Edgar Wright expending his vast talents on their story, the fan base for Sparks is about to expand. As someone wiser than myself once said, talent is an asset and The Sparks Brothers certainly have it.
The Sparks Brothers
- Overall Score
A documentary about the art pop duo Sparks, director Edgar Wright crafts a loving ode to a cult music oddity that will please hardcore fans and create a whole set of new fans in an entertaining, illuminating, and often funny portrait of the Mael Brothers.