With his new film, The Sparks Brothers, Edgar Wright eschews his normal fare for something new, a documentary about Sparks, who have released twenty-five albums over their fifty-year career, influencing hundreds of contemporary artists around the world.
Originally formed as Urban Renewal in 1967, Sparks have enjoyed more commercial success in Europe than here at home. Adapting to the times at their own whims they have done a bit of everything, from glam rock camp to floor stomping disco synthpop and off kilter art rock–their quirky, acerbic and cleverly sophisticated sound seems impervious to a sell by date.
From a development standpoint, The Sparks Brothers finds Wright’s obsession with the band and their music mirroring passion for the zombie films that helped him create Shaun of the Dead. In each case, the results are similar: an entertaining and fun film infused with Wright’s sense of humor and uncanny ability to capture to the essence of his protagonists.
Like many subjects in Wright’s films, Ron and Russell Mael don’t look like much at first. The deadpan humor and curious mustaches (sometimes part Hitler, sometimes part Chaplin) of the former offset the energetic theatrics and spastic activity of the latter, resulting in odd looking pair whose physical appearances and restless spirit work aesthetically hand in hand with their prolific musical output.
Filmed in both black and white and color, Wright shouts about the greatness of his beloved band from the highest mountaintop, deploying animation, stop motion, archival footage, along with interviews and testimonials from Neil Gaiman, Beck, Flea, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Patton Oswalt, Tony Visconti, Giorgio Moroder, Erasure, New Order, and Mike Myers amongst others.
Growing up in the Pacific Palisades, the Mael brothers developed an early love for music from their father. This appreciation grew beyond adolescence and their individual tenures at UCLA when they each were inspired by L.A.’s burgeoning club scene and thriving arts community.
Determined to do something different, the Maels distilled down their many influences and formed Sparks in 1971.
As a diehard fan, Wright is unwavering in pointing out Ron and Russell’s influence on future artists and their longevity as a band who did whatever they wanted without a care in the world. As he notes through interviews with the brothers, behind their quirky veneer is a band that is unafraid to try new things. Throughout their five decades in music Sparks have never accepted conformity. Endearingly energetic, unafraid of failure, they have always done things on their own terms. This stubbornness when paired with a relentless spirit of adventure has led for their reinvention several times over.
The documentary also illustrates Sparks is a band that experienced both sides of the musical coin. After years of being a “cult” band they achieved some notoriety in American clubs with their eighth record, the Giorgio Moroder produced Nº 1 in Heaven and again in 1983 when they stormed the pop charts with “Cool Places,” a collaboration with Go-Go Jane Wiedlin that got them on MTV and American Bandstand.
However, as Wright is quick to point out, even their audacity has been epic. From a failed collaboration with Tim Burton to their project with Franz Ferdinand (the supergroup FFS) and their attempts to create their own musical, Sparks have always sought to remain relevant. It is this steely determination that has caused them to musically reinvent themselves several times over.
From glam to post-punk pop, disco to new wave, and indie to art rock, they have always had their own renaissance. This success stems from Sparks’ ability to make music that meshes melancholy, exuberance and silly commentaries on the contemporary without sounding outdated. As noted by Wright, this formula serves as connection for their multiple eras and experiments.
Their career of adaption and innovation is visually underscored by Wright’s use of television clips, music videos, and live performances. He also follows their trajectory chronologically, allowing audiences to move beyond Sparks’ overall vagueness about their private personas.
Wright also sets aside the glowing praise of their famous fans and examines their catalog, paying key attention to several of the releases, including, Kimono My House, Propaganda, Big Beat, Angst In My Pants, In Outer Space, Music That You Can Dance To, Lil’ Beethoven, Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins, Balls, last year’s A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip and their forthcoming film Annette, which is set to open the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.
In addition to the standard rock band bio stuff, Wright dips into moments of surreal fun as he follows the Maels to some of their favorite haunts as they get coffee, eat ice cream, and work in their private studio. The results of which are heartwarming and hilarious.
With The Sparks Brothers, Edgar Wright once again proves that he is a masterful storyteller. While his previous films have mixed drama, comedy and pathos with clever dialogue and snappy pacing, this one, based in reality, is just as bold, compelling and fun. Clearly a love letter to a band he loves, he treats the band with great care as he carefully brings their career into a focused celebration of their music, mayhem and kooky brilliance.
For more information on Sparks visit their website http://allsparks.com.