“The Sparks Brothers,” a documentary about the semi-obscure, semi-famous rock band Sparks by director Edgar Wright of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” fame, is an exceedingly well-made film from a true fan, although it eventually threatens to wear out its welcome.
Wright takes a fan-boy approach to Sparks, led by brothers Ron and Russell Mael, whose off-kilter, genre-spanning styles and twisted lyrics have gained them a cult following, with occasional popular breakthroughs, usually in Europe or the United Kingdom.
They have produced 25 studio albums on almost as many record labels over an astonishing 50-year career in which no one really knows what to do with them. The blurb on the film poster neatly encapsulates their elusive appeal: “Your Favorite Band’s Favorite Band.”
Giving fair play to so much material means a two-hour-plus running time, but Wright mostly makes the time fly with creative stop-motion animation, great archival footage, more-interesting-than-usual talking heads, and general directorial cleverness.
The brothers are both in their mid-70s, with Russell the singer the youngest by three years over Ron, the keyboard player, and main songwriter. But “The Sparks Brothers” is no swan song. After previous failed attempts they’re finally getting a movie off the ground this year, the musical “Annette,” which makes sense, given how easily one can picture Ron penning witty lyrics for musical theatre in the 1930s, in a Cole Porter vein. They’re even going on a European tour in 2022.
On stage, they remind me of the American band Cheap Trick. Instead of two “pretty” guys and two “ugly” ones, there’s Russell and Ron, playing into their respective personas of pretty boy singer and nerdy keyboardist. Ron’s icy concert persona was immortalized in Paul McCartney’s video for “Coming Up,” also featured in “The Sparks Brothers.” Ron breaks into more smiles later in the documentary, as his stage persona melts over the decades.
The film makes a running joke of the idea that everyone thinks Sparks is British. The brothers grew up in Los Angeles County, in Pacific Palisades. I would have never guessed Russell Mael played quarterback in high school and that the brothers surfed on Santa Monica Beach.
Musician Todd Rundgren championed the band early, and a record company smartly changed the group’s name from Halfnelson to Sparks. They broke in England with the glam-rock-inspired “Kimono My House” in 1974, their first LP for Island Records.
The band’s first three albums for Island, done in various shades of glam-rock and power pop, are considered by many as the band’s creative zenith. The archival footage reminds you that Sparks, for a supposedly obscure group, were on television in England quite a bit in the 1970s. When prospects dried up, Sparks returned to America, which continued to ignore them.
Surprisingly hunky singer Russell Mael’s unworldly falsetto indeed sounds “possessed,” as singer Bjork says in the documentary. His high-register vocals give off a cabaret feel and can register as annoying if you’re not in the mood. It’s certainly not background music. (I have successfully removed a cat from a room with the Sparks’ song “Achoo.”) Ron Mael, with his Chaplinesque mustache, gives off a menacing persona on stage and video.
Ron’s lyrics are alienated, self-referential, and chock-full of great lines, with many twists in the tale. “Here in Heaven” documents a suicide pact gone wrong. “Tryouts for the Human Race” is a sex song from the perspective of a sperm cell.
“This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us,” their breakout European hit off “Kimono My House,” may be their closest thing to a signature song, but I prefer the album’s next track, the music hall stomper “Amateur Hour,” which has this to say about lovemaking: “It’s a lot like playing a violin, you can’t start off and be Yehudi Menuhin.” More than most bands, Sparks rewards a visit to a lyrics website.
The documentary title promises more about the brothers’ probably fascinating relationship than it delivers. The Maels come off polite but play their cards close to the vest. One of the few personal anecdotes comes courtesy of Go-Go’s guitarist Jane Wiedlin, who started a Sparks fan club as a teenager and later briefly dated Russell. Her 1983 duet with Russell, “Cool Places,” remains the band’s closest sniff to a Billboard Top 40 hit single in the United States.
Perhaps the ironic lyrics to “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)” apply to their personal lives: “There were no petty crimes/Foreign substances bought….Need a sentence at most….In assessing my life… Live fast and die young/Too late for that.” In other words, a Sparks “Behind the Music” special would be boring.
Neither do the Maels reveal their secret sauce of creativity. They talk more about their attempts to break into movie-making.
But the talking heads make up for the band’s relative taciturnity, including musicians paying homage, such as Vincent Clarke of Depeche Mode and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and comedians like Mike Myers and Weird Al Yankovic, who admire the band’s humor. Alternative musician Beck had an intriguing quote: “They may have given birth to other bands that don’t even know that the lineage goes back to them … Sparks are a part of the ecosystem of music.”
The Sparks brothers give no sign of disagreeing. The brothers certainly don’t play the self-deprecation rag, and come off a bit pleased with themselves, as is their right, although the extent of the band’s undeniable influence is up for debate.
Sparks worked in all sorts of genres, not in a desperate, hit-chasing way, but following their own path with supreme confidence. As just one instance of many, they worked with Euro-disco genius Giorgio Moroder for their album “No. 1 in Heaven” in 1979, which some consider the first wholly synth-pop album.
Wright’s approach suits a certain kind of conscientious music fan. The album cover displays (Sparks always has great album covers) including month and year are crisply chronological, although the formal dictionary definitions of the featured songs seem pointless.
“The Sparks Brothers” is overstuffed, and the last 15 minutes may give you a headache as previous talking heads rephrase their previous praise. But Wright blessedly didn’t pose Sparks as Marx Brother-type musical rapscallions — the smug “Ain’t I a Stinker?” angle that ruins some documentaries by artificially pitting the countercultural subjects against some stern-faced conservative authority that likely has no idea who they are.
Sparks seems to have a public moment every six to eight years, and here they are in 2021, spinning around again, hopefully not for the last time.