Review: The Sparks Brothers

SEAL OF APPROVAL

Director: Edgar Wright

Stars: Russell Mael, Ron Mael, Jason Schwartzman

There are several filmmakers who spring to mind for their canny, prominent use of the pop song to heighten or even choreograph an experience. Wong Kar Wai. Mia Hansen-Løve. Quentin Tarantino.

Edgar Wright would certainly be high on that list; films like Baby Driver and Shaun of the Dead hinge some of their most engaging scenes on the power-backing of a hit by Queen or The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. For Wright – as with his frequent cineaste references – it comes from a place of fandom. He’s an enthusiast, and this comes through in the work, positioning his films (and the ’90s Britcom Spaced) as emblematic of a kind of geek’s paradise. It comes from a place of joy.

This mentality is evident all through The Sparks Brothers; Wright’s first foray into documentary and a fanboy’s love letter to two under-sung heroes of pop music. As Sparks, Russell and Ron Mael have been doggedly cranking out creative pop songs for 50 years, harvesting from the peripheries of glam, electro, opera and everything in between. In that time they have recorded 25 albums, intermittently skirted mainstream appeal, and cultivated a following that includes many of our most prolific musicians and songwriters.

Prodded into making the film by his friend and fellow filmmaker Phil Lord, Wright contacted the Maels only to discover that they were mutual fans of his. Access to this notoriously mysterious duo was granted. 

The Sparks Brothers bursts into life with the same energetic fervor displayed in its trailer. Indeed, to begin with there’s reason for concern, as Wright’s trademark freneticism seems a bit full-on, and unlikely to sustain itself for a 140-minute talking heads session. Thankfully Wright settles into a more agreeable – yet still pacey – groove, and there’s plenty of anecdotal material to fill that generous running time, interspersed with archival footage and playful animated sequences.

How do you orchestrate a career-spanning documentary on a band whose very enigma is part of their appeal? Its a question Wright navigates cannily. While background information about the brothers is portioned out (their middle-class Californian upbringing, the impact of their parents, occasional references to relationships here and there), Wright sticks keenly to the discography, using the albums as a natural method of charting the course of the time.

Through Sparks frequently veer from style to style, the formative years solidify a core template that would endure. Russell the extrovert singer, performer and pin-up; Ron the reserved, wry, tight-lipped songsmith. The Sparks Brothers excels in presenting the idea of the two of them as contrasting and complimentary parts of a whole, so significantly dependent on one another that the idea of solo careers is unthinkable. In one archive monochrome photo of the brothers both wearing black, they appear as a two-headed beast, the line between them lost in the enigma of the photo. It’s as keen a visual reference for their working ethos as anything vocalised over the course of the film.

The Maels themselves appear here and there, but Wright more frequently defers to the 80-or-so musicians, band members, celebrities and fans he has corralled into telling their own stories. If the net result is ultimately biased, it is so without shame – this is a celebration of Sparks. An attempt to set the record straight, as it were, and get them the dues that all involved believe they deserve. Hopping between the UK and the US, the Mael brothers frequently discarded band members, especially as their sound changed. Acknowledgements of disgruntlement over this are few and far between but, as often as not, this seems to be because even these musicians agree that the spirit of creativity and art between Russell and Ron has always been irrepressible. For fellow musicians, that’s hard to begrudge. 

In telling this story of pop music’s most inspired also-rans, Wright has inadvertently made a film about perseverance. The six-year dry-spell at the end of the ’80s/beginning of the ’90s where the band were left adrift without a label is revealed to have been anything-but creatively speaking, and the emotion conveyed in this section unexpectedly shades the film in a manner contrary to it’s otherwise buoyant appearance. This is key to making the third act feel like a triumphant story of rebirth and rediscovery, even if Sparks remain relatively peripheral on the pop scene.

That may all change now. Improbably – but somehow fittingly – late into their extraordinary career, Sparks may be bigger than ever. In part thanks to Wright’s loving missive, but also thanks to their collaboration with Leos Carax on Annette; praised at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and imminently arriving in our cinemas. It’s just their luck to have lightning strike twice so close together in a career pitted with let downs, scheduling conflicts and uncanny coincidences. 

With regards to this film, it is joyous, infectious, one of the best times I’ve had in a cinema all year. Wright’s approach to the documentary form isn’t revelatory but it is playful and this especially resonates with its subjects. Sparks’ music is filled with wit and exuberance. They arguably couldn’t have found a better fit than Wright, and The Sparks Brothers may stand as Edgar’s best work to date.

 

8 of 10

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