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After decades bubbling just under the surface of pop culture, Ron and Russell Mael are finally getting their celebrity close-up.
On July 6, Annette, a musical conceived and written by the Mael brothers — better known as Los Angeles art band Sparks — will open the 74th Festival de Cannes. Directed by Leos Carax (Holy Motors) and starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard and Simon Helberg, Annette comes hot on the heels of Edgar Wright’s documentary about the Maels, The Sparks Brothers, which was a hit at Sundance and which Focus Features released to critical acclaim June 18.
“It’s kind of ridiculous,” says Ron Mael, 75, about Sparks’ “overnight success” — 54 years and 25 albums after he founded the band with his younger brother, Russell, 72. “When I was in France, I’d buy books about the history of the Cannes Film Festival, with all those images of the red carpet with, you know, Brigitte Bardot and Marcello Mastroianni in his tuxedo. To actually be going there with the opening-night film is really surreal.”
Surreal is one of those adjectives — alongside “eclectic,” “groundbreaking,” “brilliant” and “unappreciated”— that turns up in pretty much every discussion of Sparks. As Wright’s documentary argues, the Mael brothers could be the most influential band most people have never heard of. Their music inspired artists from New Order to The Smiths, Nirvana to Björk, but in all these years, the band has never gained more than a cult following.
That’s about to change. At least if Cannes — and Leos Carax — have anything to say about it.
The opening shot of Annette features Russell, the band’s extrovert singer, and Ron, his deadpan mustachioed counterpart on keyboards, in a Sparks recording session. Carax watches from the sound booth, every inch the French auteur, cool and enigmatic behind dark glasses.
The scene is a nod to the origins of the film, which started as a Sparks concept album.
“It was eight years ago, and we’d completed what we thought was going to be Sparks’ next album,” says Russell. “It was this musical about a famous stand-up comedian who has an unlikely romance with a world-renowned opera singer. The two of them have a child. And from that point on, things take a turn.”
A chance meeting with Carax at — where else? — the Cannes Film Festival took the project in a new direction.
“[Carax] had used a song of ours from one of our older albums, How Are You Getting Home?, on his  movie Holy Motors. We went up and thanked him. He told us he was a really big fan of Sparks,” Russell recalls. “When we got back to L.A., we sent him this new project. He said, ‘This is really fantastic. … I’d like to direct this as my next movie.’ ”
Sparks had been here before. During the late 1980s, the band tried to turn the Japanese manga Mai, the Psychic Girl into a musical, with both Tim Burton and Francis Ford Coppola trying unsuccessfully to adapt the Mael brothers’ sound for the screen. Informed by that experience, Sparks wrote the 2009 radio musical The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, about the legendary Swedish director’s misadventures in Hollywood. In a bid to get that project turned into a movie, Sparks performed the musical live at the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival in a show directed by Canadian avant-garde filmmaker Guy Maddin. Financing was not forthcoming.
But for Annette, Carax finally was able to cobble together funding from throughout the world — the Cannes opener is credited as a French-German-Mexican-U.S.-Swiss-Belgian-Japanese co-production — in a way that wouldn’t compromise the Mael brothers’ vision.
“This is very much Leos’ film and, being the director, he has his perspective and his slant,” says Russell. “But by and large, it is the exact story that we presented to him eight years ago. You have to really credit Leos for his real passion for the project and for sticking with it single-mindedly for so long.”
The film ultimately took off when Driver got a copy of the script and signed on to play Henry, the movie’s self-destructive superstar stand-up. Cotillard plays Ann, his tragic opera-star wife, with The Big Bang Theory actor Helberg as their friend and collaborator, known only as The Conductor.
Annette lands — debuting in the U.S. on Amazon on Aug. 20 — as musicals are having a bit of a moment. Jon M. Chu’s movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights may have underperformed in theaters for Warner Bros., but Hollywood is still betting big on its song-and-dance numbers, from the Steven Spielberg-directed, Tony Kushner-written West Side Story for Disney, to Joe Wright’s adaptation of Cyrano starring Peter Dinklage for MGM, to Universal’s Dear Evan Hansen, Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of the 2017 Tony and Grammy award winner featuring Ben Platt and Julianne Moore.
Even within this eclectic group, Annette stands out. Carax has faithfully translated Sparks’ special brand of weirdness to the big screen. With no spoken dialogue and a Wagnerian plot involving tragic death, inexplicable miracles and vengeance beyond the grave, the film is closer to opera than Broadway. The music — endlessly quirky, shifting from rock opera to synth-pop to, in one of Henry’s stand-up routines, a gospel-like call-and-response with the audience — is unlike anything you’ll find on Disney+.
Sparks’ Cannes coming-out party has been nearly a decade in the making. On July 6, it’ll be revealed whether the world is ready to embrace the Mael brothers as pop culture superstars.
“Our entire career has been unplanned. Things have really happened by chance, despite our best efforts to do things in a more orderly fashion,” says Russell. “So to be the opening night film at Cannes is kind of beyond any expectations, especially for being Americans and being film fanatics for so long. It’s kind of amazing.”
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