Director: Edgar Wright
Cast: Ron Mael, Russell Mael, Jane Wiedlin, Beck, Flea, Tony Visconti, Todd Rundgren, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost
As a kid growing up in 1983, I’d watch Sparks’ Cool Places air a few times on MTV – back when it actually was “Music Television” instead of the reality TV monstrosity it’s become the past 3 decades. The video featured Jane Wiedlin from the Go-Gos. It was catchy as hell though way dated by today’s standards. But who were these other dudes in the video? The singer seemed normal enough, duetting with Jane and doing the 80s dance moves. But that other guy with the weird mustache – what’s his deal? An ear-worm of a song, cool as hell. But those guys were kinda strange… That singer is Russell Mael and the weird mustachioed guy is his real life older brother Ron. Together they are Sparks.
And it was high time someone made a genuine documentary about these guys. That someone turned out to be Edgar Wright, who directed such high-profile films such as Shawn of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Baby Driver and the upcoming Anya Taylor-Joy horror fest Last Night in Soho. This seemed fitting for Wright, tackling a group who on the surface never took itself too seriously. But what we find here in The Sparks Brothers is a duo of uncompromising artistry, full of humor, reinvention and musicality. Add to that an enduring though rocky longevity in the music business for 5 full decades.
The documentary chronicles their early life in Culver City, CA onto Pacific Palisades in the 40s and 50s. They were highly influenced by their artistic father, a graphic designer and cartoonist by trade, who brought home rock & roll records. Interestingly, Wright doesn’t run the regular course here in peeling back history or mining for dramatics to expose familial eccentricities or trauma. Instead, it’s a carefully molded unwrapping of a musical and theatrical history that begins in 70s Glam to almost every possible genre of music that exist today. In a career that spans 25 albums and countless songs, their constant reinvention of themselves is mind boggling – and at the same time remaining true to themselves as Sparks.
Along with assorted commentary from a plethora of celebrities and musicians, The Sparks Brothers begs the question, how could a band that’s been around so long be virtually unknown? Jane Wiedlin comments, “I think they were too much for most people.” Not unlike David Bowie, their constant reinvention from album to album never acquiesced to expectation. Though never really achieving mainstream success, they broke through the culture when Paul McCartney parodied Ron and his mustache in the video for his hit Coming Up.
Interestingly, by film’s end we don’t really know too much more about the Mael brothers as we had expected. What we do end up with is a natural appreciation of Sparks the band; the weirdness of it, its strange sensibility and outright curiosity. Somehow they were able to meld cinema, humor and art into what Giorgio Moroder referred to as the music of the future.
The Sparks Brothers achieves what most rock docs never get to – and that’s putting the concept behind the band first and foremost. The idea of musical persistence, self-awareness and an odd body of uncompromising creative work is the principle of the film. Full of humor and wit, rare footage and interesting anecdotes, The Sparks Brothers is a classic, up there with Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense and D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back. Wright does right in adding to the band’s mystique rather than tarnishing it. In some parallel universe, Sparks is big and No. 1 in Heaven. Now that would be something.
So did you see THE SPARKS BROTHERS? Let us know what you think!