Name one artist who has possessed firm longevity, a diverse discography, and a legion of fans. So many of you will probably answer with Paul McCartney, Barry Manilow, or maybe Garth Brooks. All three are quite valid, in their respective genres. Yet, in the mysterious world of new wave rock, their equal has carried a mystique comfortably keeping them below the radar. Even those who have declared themselves as fans of their work often don’t know how to explain them. They just exist. Thus opens the case for The Sparks Brothers, the first documentary captained by cinematic hero Edgar Wright (Baby Driver). The pure fondness he shares toward this wild card of a musical act led by siblings Ron and Russell Mael is, for lack of a better term, unique, their trajectory evolving with both times and trends, without ever being considerably mainstream. With a library encompassing 25 albums and nearly 350 songs, it almost makes no sense how they are not better recognized. Perhaps this film will change that for good.
Wright establishes quickly how much of an enigma Sparks is to the naked eye. The Mael siblings are just that to all except for those who knew them best, and up close. Southern California natives who had their greatest musical success in Europe, never breaking out domestically. With how many times they reinvented themselves over half a century in the business ranging in genres from baroque to glam to straightforward electronica and dance pop, it’s difficult to understand why they couldn’t. This documentary is the crash course we never thought we needed, tailored like a hybrid between college study and visual podcast through each of the duo’s works, elements of each like a puzzle piece adding up together to build the base biography.
With assistance from names ranging from Wright himself, Jack Antonoff and Weird Al, to Mike Myers, Beck, Jason Schwartzman, Gilmore Girls co-creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, and Duran front men Nick Rhodes and John Taylor, the story of Sparks meticulously builds an exciting, iconoclastic, surprisingly humorous bite. The only way to match what visual style the duo parlayed on stage and on television; Russell with his long hair and high falsetto, Ron with his low-baritone glasses and wispy mustache motif. Nothing so clashing should work so ideally, but with this duo there’s never any manner of doubt in their heads.
At no time do we ever lose sight of the pair’s influences, having grown up at the impetus of early rock and roll; think the period between Buddy Holly, Bill Haley and early-era Beatles. That’s as far as music, but we get just as much focus on Russell’s excitement for film, inspired by the work of French cinema, namely Godard and Tati, culminating in almost working with the latter, and a random cameo in the disaster epic Rollercoaster. Wright embraces that side of the tale, incorporating plenty of animation and recreations alongside the typical archive footage, photos, and talking head interviews, appropriately captured in the blank slate setting of black and white by DoP Jake Polonsky (Senna).
This is Wright at his best game, using every minute wisely to show each narrow corner of these brothers’ backstory and persistent musical evolution. At 140 minutes, it plays as exhaustively as 2020’s History of the Seattle Mariners, albeit in less time and on a singular timeline without jumping around events or looking too deep on details. As we chart the progress on each album, each lofty high where Britain was their oyster, and disastrous low accompanying the struggles of commercial success exile, we as observers warm up to the idea of creative evolution whilst maintaining a sense of order, routine, and simplicity in the day to day. To age gracefully in an industry as cutthroat as popular music, and perhaps not been the focal point, does take a certain discipline, using the frustration and downfall only as stems for further lyrical creativity. The mad geniuses they are, Ron and Russell are portrayed as genuine hard workers, looking for connectivity versus stability. The way Wright paints them is nothing but appropo.
To the hard-core fan who’d once thought, they knew everything about Sparks as a group they might’ve only discovered on need-to-know bases, this will feel very much like a welcome appreciation. To those who’ll either have remembered them for their breakout hit “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For the Both of Us” having snuck on the soundtrack for Kick-Ass and not much else, The Sparks Brothers will be nothing less than the cinematic equivalent of an online college course condensed to a single Sunday session. I am personally in the latter category, probably having known them without actually knowing them. At least the influence they have left on music in general, and namely in new wave, if the cult following they developed stateside is enough proof.
Wright’s concise fondness for the Maels is a candid, refreshing departure from his usual fictional fare, a nerdy side we’ve only seen in behind the scenes materials. Like Sparks themselves, it’s a fair risk to take, tackling a niche topic with the hope, never the goal, of making it mainstream. To survive this long without truly making it, and still have more than a few earworms in one arsenal, that has made me a fan. For both Wright and his subjects, I await what they come up with next. (A; 4/5 Horns Up!)
The Sparks Brothers is currently playing in select area theaters; rated R for language; 140 minutes.