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Edgar Wright has spent a lot of his time (and other people’s) talking about beloved cult pop duo Sparks. “If you talked to any of my friends they’d say that if I’d got onto Sparks they’d be there for the next hour while I was trying to explain to them how amazing Sparks was,” he says.
After a fateful 2017 show at the El Rey, where fellow filmmaker and Sparks fan Phil Lord suggested that he make a definitive Sparks story, the Hot Fuzz filmmaker found himself directing his first documentary, conducting 80 interviews with everyone from Duran Duran and Flea to Patton Oswalt and Mike Myers.
The Sparks Brothers will debut on Jan. 30 as part of this year’s virtual Sundance Film Festival. “In a way this documentary is relieving me of that duty,” he says of his self-imposed post as Sparks evangelizer.
Along with Sparks’ Ron and Russell Mael, Wright talks to The Hollywood Reporter about sourcing footage from Twitter and what fellow artists can learn from the musicians’ story.
Edgar, how did you come to know Sparks as a fan?
Edgar Wright I guess they had been a part of my life. I’d known who they were since I was five because I saw Sparks on Top of the Pops when I was five years old in the “Number One in Heaven” period. Even as a five year old, the image of Ron and Russell on stage or staring down the camera was one that was beguiling and slightly intimidating and amusing. Then later again and in the mid-90s, Sparks had a hit in the U.K., this time with a dance record. Again, Ron and Russell were on TV a lot and had an amazing music video for this track, “When Do I Get To Sing ‘My Way’” but they didn’t look any older than when I’d last seen them so now I was properly confused. Following that I became a proper hard core fan in this millennium. From 2002 onwards, [they] released this string of albums that were really ambitious and challenging and as good as what they had been doing before, which is not the natural trajectory for most bands who have been going for decades. Most bands that have been going for decades, like the Rolling Stones or The Who, at a certain point they become a greatest hits band. Almost like a tribute band to themselves. And Sparks weren’t doing that.
How did you first meet?
Wright Two things happened. One, I remember when I was writing Baby Driver, I was in an office on the lot and I was talking to my friend Michael Bacall, the screenwriter, and he knew one Sparks song, “All I Ever Think About Is Sex,” but he didn’t know anything else. So I started playing him tons of Sparks. And at some point, after listening to about four Sparks songs in a row, I was like, ‘I wonder if Sparks are on Twitter?’ I found their account and it said Sparks follows you. I have known them since I was five and imagined that they were like the J.D. Salingers of rock and didn’t even live on this planet. The fact that they had a Twitter account and they followed me I was just dumbfounded. So then when I messaged them, Russell responded in about five minutes because he was in L.A. as well.. And then 24-hours later, I was having breakfast with Ron and Russell at Russell’s house in Beverly Hills.
In 2017, after Baby Driver had come out, me and [Lego Movie director] Phil Lord went together to see them at the El Rey in Los Angeles. I was standing in the VIP balcony in between Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols and Tony Basil of “Mickey” fame. And I was looking out at the crowd, which was ages 16 to 60, and I just found it endlessly fascinating, the appeal of the band across all ages and also who was there. And I said to Phil, I said, the only thing that’s stopping this band from being as big as they should be is a documentary, some kind of overview or defining documentary. And Phil Lord said, “You should make that movie.” And I said, “I will,” very confidently.
Ron and Russell, why did you think Edgar was the right person to make this definitive Sparks documentary?
Russell Mael We were obviously aware of all of his films and fans of all of his films. We had been hesitant in the past to have a documentary about Sparks done by someone that we didn’t think had the sensibility to convey what Sparks is in the proper way. Because we always feel that what we do creatively, our music, speaks louder than discussing what it is that we do. So when Edgar had proposed doing this to us, we said that it would be amazing. We think the sensibility of what Edgar does cinematically, there’s a parallel to what Sparks does musically.
Ron Mael It wasn’t like we were searching for somebody to do a documentary about Sparks. We would’ve been happy to go on not having a documentary. But this situation, it was ideal. Edgar was willing to treat each of the [musical] periods as being important. Even up to the present time, filming festivals just before the pandemic, filming really recent festivals with younger people there. That was something that was really meant a lot to us. It wasn’t just a trip down memory lane.
How did you go about finding and collecting archival footage?
Wright We had an amazing archival team working on it, but there’s stuff that’s out there that people have been sitting on. Sometimes the son of a German TV director says, “I have this 35-millimeter film that’s been sitting here.” I put the word out on Twitter and said I’m making this documentary if you have any footage. A lot of things came through that, some things that nobody had ever seen before— people had shot super-8 footage of a 1976 tour.
And then beyond that, in terms of the interviewees, I don’t want to say it was easy because it was quite a herculean task, but I will say everybody wanted to talk about it. There were people that were noted fans of Sparks and then there’s people that I just assumed would be. And, more often than not, I was correct. There’s some people that I cold called— like Neil Gaiman, Mike Meyers, Patton Oswalt, Beck, Flea — and I’d say, “You’re a Sparks fan, right?” The thing that speaks to their work is how, like me, a lot of people who were Sparks fans are passionate advocates and so it was really just about getting that on tape. I think it’s like 80 interviews in the film and there’s only one that I didn’t do in person. I was definitely star struck the first time I met Ron and Russell back in 2015 but there were several people in this it was like, oh my god, I’m interviewing Todd Rundgren today or I’m interviewing Duran Duran or Vince Clark. I think I didn’t realize that actually maybe some other directors or documentaries don’t do all the interviews.
Russell I think Edgar’s manner in doing the interviews was such a key to this documentary. He put people at ease so that they were able to speak very casually about their feelings. It wasn’t a dry, uptight kind of situation. Everybody really was having a conversation and I think that comes across.
This documentary is about Sparks and your history, but it’s also about artistry and independence. What do you all hope artists, whether they are filmmakers or musicians, take away from it?
Wright Well I gotta say that I didn’t necessarily plan but the one thing that’s timely about this film coming out now is musical artists are having an especially tough time. In this day and age, most musical artists only make money from life performing because streaming isn’t paying out in the way it should be. Controversial, but true. So there are tons of artists out there who are having a really tough time. I think something in the documentary that I think actually any artist, not just musicians, would take away from it is just perseverance and persistence of vision is so key. I would say in the documentary there are probably about ten points in the documentary where other bands would have jacked it in and it’s a testament to Ron and Russell’s tenacity and self-belief that they pushed through those moments to get even better.
Ron We always felt that what we’re doing is a cause. We really feel that our stuff has to get out there, on whatever scale. We have had things that have been widespread and things that have only reached a limited amount of people. We always really refuse to not have our voices heard in some kind of way. That really is the energy behind what we’re doing.
MRC, which produced the doc, is a co-owner of The Hollywood Reporter through a joint venture with Penske Media titled P-MRC.
This interview had been edited and condensed for clarity.
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