Sundance 2021 Film Review: The Sparks Brothers ★★★★

BAFTA-nominated British filmmaker Edgar Wright, known for his adept and creative use of music in movies like Baby Driver and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, has devoted several years to making his feature documentary debut about his favourite band, Sparks. Whether you’re a lifelong fan, casual admirer, or have never knowingly heard their music before, the stylish and substantial The Sparks Brothers, which had its world premiere at Sundance, should satisfy as the definitive story so far. The film offers a fascinating insight into the lives of the enigmatic Russell and Ron Mael and their creative process, which has resulted in 25 albums to date. With a beautifully shot new black and white interview of the Mael siblings at the centre of film, Wright wisely taps into the brothers’ wry humour and quirky take on the world, and the doc, like the men themselves and their music, is continually surprising, smart, and playful; Wright even has fun with the captions that introduce the impressive roster of talking heads. Among the 80 interviews conducted for the film are appearances from former bandmates and fellow musicians like Beck, Björk, Andy Bell, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea, Duran Duran, Heaven 17, New Order, music journalist Paul Morley, famous admirers like Mike Myers, and a devoted, stage-invading fan. There are also some inventive sequences using various styles of animation to illustrate certain anecdotes, (the claymation rendering of a bloody onstage mishap with a mallet is a particular highlight), which keep things fizzing visually.

As the film opens it quickly dispels the misconception that Sparks are British, despite the band’s considerable success in the UK over their five decade career they actually grew up in sun-drenched California absorbing the radio hits of their 1950s childhoods and catching movies in their local cinema, often midway through. They’ve remained committed cinephiles, and appeared in the 1970s disaster pic Rollercoaster, and came close to collaborating on a movie with Tim Burton, but the project stalled. They did however recently complete a musical with visionary Holy Motors director Leos Carax, starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard to be released later this year which we get a brief behind the scenes glimpse of.

Wright takes us chronologically through each album and some major live gigs (including a three week stint in London performing 21 different albums over 21 nights). Chronicling some artists with that structure might prove dull, but with Sparks’ eclectic and unpredictable output that’s never the case here. At two hours twenty minutes the film never outstays its welcome, with the introduction of new talking heads throughout injecting energy and the brothers’ journey in the business is grippingly told. It’s a story of frequent and fearless reinvention while remaining true themselves and never trying to fit in with what was popular at any given time, which is likely one of the reasons why their music doesn’t sound dated now. Apparently an off the cuff joke about Giorgio Moroder producing their eighth album led to just that, resulting in 1979’s sublime Nº 1 in Heaven, credited as inspiring a wave of 80s synth pop duos. Following mediocre sales of 1984’s Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat, a record label exec urged them to make something more commercial, he wanted “music that you can dance to”. They responded with their fourteenth album entitled Music That You Can Dance To. The film touches upon Sparks considerable gay following, which aside from us having great taste in music of course, might be attributed, as one contributor suggests, to their playfulness with masculinity, for instance the cover of their 1982 album Angst in my Pants featured Ron in a wedding dress alongside Russell in a silver suit.

Unlike other brothers in bands, the laidback Maels appear to have a close and easygoing relationship, we see them working quietly side-by-side as they collaborate on new music and in archive footage looking comfortable together performing on stage, on TV shows like Britain’s Top of the Pops, and appearing on chat shows. Rather than the usual tales of excess, alcohol and drugs that one tends to expect from a rock doc, the Mael’s talk about their dedication to their work, morning strolls and favourite coffee haunts in Los Angeles (Urth Caffé on Melrose and the Farmer’s Market). Wright clearly wants to share his love for Sparks with the world and show us why he’s so passionate about the band, the result is a film that doesn’t feel the slightest bit snooty or excluding to newcomers, as some music docs can. It’s an electrifying, inspiring tale of creative genius met with perseverance, of making art for art’s sake.

By James Kleinmann

The Sparks Brothers had its world premiere at Sundance 2021.

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