Review: The Sparks Brothers

Nice bit of timing on the part of the involved local distributors to arrange for Edgar Wright’s documentary about the veteran pop group Sparks to open one week after the Japan release of Leos Carax’s musical (operetta?) Annette, for which Sparks provided the songs (by my measure, the best thing about the movie). If the timing was serendipity, so much the better, since, as Wright’s movie so ably points out, at many points in the band’s five-decade career they’ve seemed to teeter on the verge of irrelevance only to come roaring back as potent as ever. And yet, as the movie also attests, they’ve never been properly understood, even by their loyalest fans.

Fortunately, Wright doesn’t try to recreate Sparks’ shape-shifting aesthetic for the movie. It’s pretty conventional as far as music bios go, opening with a litany of raves from recognizable celebrities (Beck, Mike Meyers, New Order), before actually introducing Ron and Russell Mael, the brothers who have always been Sparks. It then follows with a brief but incisive explanation of their 1950s-60s childhood in California and how it shaped their approach to not only music but the life of the mind. It helps that Wright, a comedian at heart, appreciates the brothers’ knack for lampooning everything they believe in, including their own native talents, and never presents the Maels as something they could never be, i.e., geniuses or the progenitor-saviors of SoCal art rock. You would never mistake Sparks’ artistry for the self-indulgent earnestness of the so-called Laurel Canyon sound or, for that matter, Frank Zappa. 

But Wright does add his own unique visual shorthand for describing Sparks’ development, using animation, both hand-drawn and stop-action, to supplement the brothers’ own unique conception of themselves as entertainers, and it’s easy to see how, as both Russell and Ron point out so often, they were as influenced by movies as they were by music. In that regard, the malleability of their sound mirrored the fluid character of postwar art, whether popular, middle-brow, or lofty. In the 70s alone, Sparks went from proto-glam to prog to disco in such a way that they seemed to forecast these trends even though they were often riding coattails. The difference is that they absorbed what made these forms interesting for them, which is also why they never achieved ringing commercial success in any of their endeavors. However, they endured and prospered. This tendency would persist through the 80s and 90s and on into the new millennium, but one facet would remain unchanged: the aural and visual imagery of the brothers themselves, specifically Russell’s fey, operatic vocal style and Ron’s purposefully bizarre stage appearance and mannerisms. As many of the talking heads here testify, Ron may possess the most iconic mustache of any figure in pop culture since Salvador Dali. Less noted until Wright makes an issue of it is Ron’s musical inventiveness, which is really the source of the duo’s longevity. Though the remarks by musicians, producers, and other industry people about Sparks’ integrity as song creators is the least compelling part of the movie, it accurately points up how their technical chops kept them in the money. That’s why Annette, though not really covered in the film, is so significant: they’d tried putting together narrative performance pieces before but couldn’t quite square their weird idiosyncratic music with the communal function of theater and film production. It took a Leos Carax, meaning someone who could raise money for ambitious, totally personal art, to let them fulfill their artistic vision in their own way. Wright’s movie honors that vision just as ably. 

Opens April 8 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

The Sparks Brothers home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Focus Features LLC

My interview with Russell Mael from 2009

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