The Sparks Brothers is showing at Sundance London on 29th July; book tickets here.
Think of some of the most iconic bands of all time, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, and The Beatles, all are absolute legends, known for their ground-breaking performances and impossibly-high record sales. But, if you approached any of these groups and asked them who some of their favourite artists are, Sparks may get a mention. Now, you may be asking yourself, who the hell are Sparks? And that is what Edgar Wright attempts to answer with his new documentary, The Sparks Brothers.
Brothers Russell and Ron Mael appear as a musical paradox – simultaneously acclaimed worldwide yet overlooked for generations. They have a wealth of famous, adoring fans who scream their names from the rooftops. But, equally, many know little about them beyond their appearance and puzzle box of songs, and from what the Mael Brothers tell us, this is entirely intentional.
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Although Wright’s documentary seeks to delve deeper into the Mael Brothers, he also makes us aware of the risks of undoing the mythology they’ve constructed around them. In fact, many of the talking heads even joke about their desire to avoid the documentary lest they discover too much about Sparks. This is just one small piece of an extensive jigsaw in understanding how Sparks seem both everywhere and nowhere.
There is no doubt that The Sparks Brothers is a passion project for Wright, as he takes on the role of a curator in a cinematic museum of Sparks history – his documentary set on leaving no stone unturned as he catalogues the brother’s past. This sometimes results in The Sparks Brothers feeling overly long, partly due to the sheer magnitude of their albums, projects and endeavours.
There’s an aborted Jacques Tati film, a fallen-through Tim Burton anime, and 25+ albums created over the years. As a result, it is often genuinely tricky to comprehend what year we’re in as the documentary rolls on. You may think this would instil a cranky or self-righteous narcissism in the two, as is typical of many bands. But, in reality, they seem remarkably well-adjusted and down-to-earth. As Wright suggests, maybe it’s the brotherly bond or the respect the pair have for one another, but their spark has never died.
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However, most impressive in the Sparks story are the sheer number of hurdles, setbacks and failures the two have endured. Throughout the first 15 years of the band, their career was hit-or-miss from album to album, yet it was water off a duck’s back for Russell and Ron. Here, it is easy for us to hear them say, “we don’t care about fame or fortune”, but it’s even more powerful to see their passionate defence of the arts played out through their actions.
Their music isn’t just music to listen to; it is threaded with lyrical puzzles for their fans to decode, finding their own meanings and interpretations. There are characters, storylines, themes and motifs in Ron’s creations and his work, bringing them to life through his puppeteering of Russell, his greatest instrument. Their work is hilariously comical and tragically emotional, a union closer to poetry than pop.
It almost feels as though there’s something bigger at play as Wright delves into the history of Sparks. After all, we’re at a time where many decry cinema as mere cookie-cutter entertainment, its blockbuster movies falling into repetitive patterns with a fear of experimentation and audience rebellion at the box office. However, Sparks never cared about their audience rebelling; they disregarded the nebulous notes of their labels and even shed multiple band rotations favouring a radically new direction. For Sparks, a sense that things weren’t working, or a fear their art had become safe, would lead them to throw it all away in favour of rebirth. Seeing this pair reject comforting commercial success in favour of this artistic liberation is beautiful and inspiring. To this end, Sparks reflect what true artists can achieve when free from constraint.
There is no doubt that this is a documentary for Sparks fans; it’s core based on an understanding of them as individuals and as brothers, their processes and their undying resolve to create – their impact and legacy, transcribed through the love letter of a diehard fanboy and director. But even if you’ve never heard of Russell or Ron, there’s something here for everyone. Just like their music, you don’t merely watch The Sparks Brothers – you decode their life story, finding lessons and tips about art, creativity, and happiness. The resulting documentary feels like the beginning of a new phase for Sparks, and even if you don’t get hooked on them, there’s a song for everyone along the way.