- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
Sparks may be the most interesting band the casual music fan has never heard of. That’s certainly the stance taken by director Edgar Wright (Baby Driver, Shaun of the Dead) in his debut documentary chronicling the half-century career of the pop-art (or feel free to add your own label) duo who have dozens of albums to their credit and influenced a seemingly endless number of better-known musicians. While The Sparks Brothers may be a bit too exhaustive for those merely seeking an introduction to the band, longtime fans will be thrilled by the deluxe treatment. The film, receiving its world premiere at Sundance, will likely add many newcomers to those ranks.
The central core of Sparks is siblings Ron and Russell Mael, who grew up in Southern California in thrall of European art films and British bands like the Who and the Kinks. After attending UCLA, they formed their own band, dubbed Halfnelson, with Russell doing the singing and Ron writing most of the wittily humorous songs and playing keyboards. They attracted the attention of Todd Rundgren, who produced their 1971 debut album, but it failed to make an impression either critically or commercially. A record executive suggested they change their name to “The Sparks Brothers”; the siblings relented to “Sparks,” and the album was reissued.
The early years were ones of struggle, as the Maels attest to in one of their many interview segments scattered throughout the film. They describe how they made an appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand even while in desperate financial straits. Shopping at a supermarket, they were recognized by the cashier, who was startled to discover that the musicians she saw on television the night before were using food stamps to pay for their groceries.
Their next album, the amusingly titled A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing (most of their releases had similarly quirky monikers), fared little better. But it led to their touring in the United Kingdom, where they formed a new band. They had much greater success there, with the hit single “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us.” They also appeared on Top of the Pops, where Russell’s model-ready good looks and Ron’s deadpan demeanor — not to mention his mustache which, depending on your perspective, resembled either Adolf Hitler’s or Charlie Chaplin’s — made them something of a sensation among the teen set. The Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones comments sardonically about their appearance, “There were a lot of screams, because of cutie pie on vocals.”
Far more popular in Europe, Sparks never achieved breakout mainstream success in their native country. This was partly due to their constant musical experimentation and stylistic shifts, which included forays into glam rock, bubblegum pop, big band-style jazz, garage rock and, most notably, a 1979 collaboration with producer Giorgio Moroder that resulted in a synthesizer-driven dance music album. It was a huge influence on numerous bands who would adopt the style to even greater commercial success in the 1980s, such as Depeche Mode, New Order, Duran Duran and many others.
Along the way, there were several film projects that didn’t work out, including attempted collaborations with legendary French filmmaker Jacques Tati and Tim Burton. Sparks did make an appearance in the 1977 disaster movie Rollercoaster as a band playing in an amusement park, but it didn’t do much for their careers. “It’s the Citizen Kane of disaster movies,” Ron says. “The disaster is that no one went to see the movie.”
Some fifty years and two dozen albums later, Sparks is still going strong. Their enduring cultural influence is discussed by dozens of interview subjects, filmed in black and white and speaking directly into the camera. The list includes Beck, Weird Al Yankovic, Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes and John Taylor, Flea, author Neil Gaiman, Bernard Butler, Jack Antonoff, Thurston Moore, comedian Patton Oswalt and director Wright, as well as numerous Sparks collaborators and band members past and present.
The Sparks Brothers delivers a wealth of film clips, including archival and concert footage and music videos, perhaps the most amusing of which is Paul McCartney’s “Coming Up” video in which he imitates Ron. There are also numerous animated interludes incorporating different styles including claymation. One of the most interesting sections revolves around a 2008 series of London concerts in which they played each of their albums in its entirety over the course of 21 nights. The impressive feat required them to rehearse and perform some 300 songs.
Like that event, the 140-minute documentary may prove too daunting for those not deeply interested in the minutiae of every twist and turn in the band’s lengthy career. By the time the film gets around to documenting the siblings’ workout routines (they are in great shape for septuagenarians), some viewers may have already tuned out. A bit of judicious editing would seem to be in order, with the version premiering at Sundance perhaps most suitable as a director’s cut on home video formats.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production company: MRC Non-Fiction, Complete Fiction
Director: Edgar Wright
Producers: Nira Park, Edgar Wright, George Hencken, Laura Richardson
Director of photography: Jake Polonsky
Editor: Paul Trewartha
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day
Santa Barbara International Film Festival