“Sparks Brothers” pays homage to the eccentric genius of the musical duo
THE SPARKS BROTHERS
3½ stars (out of 4)
Director: Edgar Wright
Documentary film with: Russell Mael, Ron Mael, Beck, Todd Rundgren, Mike Myers, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Flea
Available: In theaters from June 18
If you’ve never heard of the Sparks Group, don’t feel bad, but be aware.
To my embarrassment, I didn’t know the band until I watched Edgar Wright’s gripping documentary The Sparks Brothers. In addition to an undergraduate degree in communication, I have a minor in music, and playing the guitar is one of my most passionate hobbies. I even made a dollar or two on the weekends singing covers for pubs and restaurants, which means I consider myself to have musical knowledge. Yet Sparks was a blind spot for decades. Today, I thank Wright for correcting this.
The Sparks Brothers is a delightful meditation on pop music that plays like a cross between the 1984 mock documentary It’s the spinal cock and the decidedly serious Metallica: Some kind of monster. With the film, Wright (an avowed Sparks fan) delves deep into the music of Russell and Ron Mael, the sibling duo at the heart of the group. The brothers (along with a rotating team of collaborators) have been creating original tunes for more than five decades, sort of producing 24 studio albums and generating enough buzz to inspire a documentary, while mostly avoiding mainstream popularity.
With The Sparks Brothers, Wright – best known as the driving force behind Baby Driver, Warm down and Shaun of the Dead – paints a loving and nostalgic picture of the Maels. This is appropriate because no matter what you think of their music, they deserve to be known.
Perhaps the most interesting revelation from The Sparks Brothers is that the group has largely avoided commercial relevance by refusing to sell. From the Mael brothers’ first musical exploits in the late 1960s to the release of their 2020 album, “A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip”, they have remained fiercely independent. As other bands mutated in the interest of becoming more commercial, Ron Mael (the songwriter) insisted on writing original tunes with witty lyrics and backing tracks steeped in excess. glam rock. That’s not to say Sparks has been stuck in a rut for 50 years. Rather the opposite. The band flirted with progressive rock, pop, and synth-based film music, and they did all of that well enough to keep working. The point is, all of these changes were artistic choices – not changes designed by a producer or a music label. You have to admire its integrity, even if that’s why the group remains obscure.
All that noted, my ignorance of Sparks is hardly universal. Wright gathered an overwhelming number of Sparks fans to talk about the group – virtually all of them better known than the Maels. Over the course of the 135 minute film, we hear Beck, Todd Rundgren, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Jack Antonoff of Bleachers and Nick Rhodes and John Taylor of Duran Duran. Wright also interviews famous fans who are best known for things beyond music. These include actor Mike Myers, writer Neil Gaiman and comedian Patton Oswalt. There are more people as well, and the “in the know” list is so hip it made me feel even dumber for missing 50 years of creative Maels production.
As any good documentary maker would, Wright spends an impressive time with the Maels, allowing them to talk about their musical journey firsthand. Russell (the singer), we learn, has always been the idol. With a good boyish appearance, an impressive rock star mane and a lot of charisma, he often seemed destined to take the band to the next level. Ron, on the other hand, has always played the role of an eccentric musical genius. While arguably handsome, he purposely downplayed his natural physical assets, adopting a Charlie Chaplin-style mustache that many believed made him look like Adolph Hitler.
The Maels are both funny too. You would expect the senior musicians (both 70 years old) who never really broke through to be jaded and angry, but there are no bitter grapes in the interviews. On the contrary, it is their fans who regret that the Maels are not better known. Russell and Ron are seemingly open about their creative process, but both are mischievous enough that we’re never sure they’re telling the whole truth. Coming from less charismatic people it can be frustrating, but with them it’s charming.
The Sparks Brothers is as entertaining as it is informative, and music lovers should leave the film appreciating the Maels’ contributions to pop music and admiring Wright’s ability to tell their story. In addition, people who – like me – embarked on this project without knowing the band will undoubtedly spend a few hours rummaging through its rather impressive catalog. Not every movie leaves me with new downloads in my music library, but this one certainly did.
Authors biography :
Forrest Hartman, a Intellectual magazine contributor, is a longtime entertainment journalist who teaches in the Department of Journalism and Public Relations at California State University, Chico.
For Highbrow Magazine