THE STORY – Sparks is your favorite band’s favorite band, and soon to be yours too. Whether or not you’re aware of it, Sparks likely had a hand in something you’re fond of. This is a band that has been in the background of almost every art form across the last 50 years. Growing up in the ’60s, Los Angeles brothers Ron and Russell got by on a heavy diet of popcorn matinees and pop music until the spotlight of school talent shows illuminated their way on a musical journey that has so far spawned 25 studio albums.
THE CAST – Russell Mael & Ron Mael
THE TEAM – Edgar Wright (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 140 Minutes
By Cody Dericks
Even the best rock and roll stories sometimes follow a predictable formula: humble roots, sudden fame, hard parties, bitter fallout, and if you’re lucky, a happy reunion. Leave it to Edgar Wright, one of today’s most unique and electric directors, to bring a true music story to the screen that defies those clichés and instead serves as a celebration of long-lasting talent and collaborative harmony. “The Sparks Brothers” marks Wright’s documentary debut, and it joyously chronicles the influential yet underappreciated rock duo Sparks.
Brothers Ron and Russell Mael have been a musical pair for over 50 years. At first launching as a band called Halfnelson, they quickly renamed themselves Sparks and became known for their highly individualistic sound and clever lyrics. Through the years, Sparks has cycled through a number of other band members, but Ron as the keyboard player and Russell as the vocalist have remained constant up to the present day. They’ve released 25 albums and recorded hundreds of songs, yet they never achieved total global superstardom. But they’ve managed to accumulate some of the music world’s most loyal fans and always stayed true to themselves, never losing sight of what matters the most in art.
Wright chronicles their long and winding career, aided by interviews from dozens of fans, musicians, writers, comedians, and the brothers themselves. It’s quite long for a documentary, clocking in at over two hours, making it longer than any of Wright’s narrative features. But the length is necessary to cover the band’s career in a way that pays tribute to their entire discography evenly. The film charts all of their most important songs and albums, giving an equal spotlight to their commercial highs and less-lauded lows. But what’s consistent is the appreciation shown for all of these moments in the band’s history, both from their fans and from the musical pair. This exhaustive retrospective style also helps the audience to become enamored of the brothers. I went into this movie having never heard a single song of theirs. By the end, I not only appreciated their contribution to the pop and rock landscape, but I also felt a deep respect for how they’ve navigated the ups and downs of their extensive musical lives.
It wouldn’t be an Edgar Wright film without his trademark wit and cinematic cheekiness. Just because he’s operating in the realm of documentary-style filmmaking doesn’t mean he can’t have some fun with it. His editing is, as usual, highly-energized and rhythmically compelling. And he incorporates impressive little bits of animations to help illustrate the band’s story. These range in style, including, among others, stop-motion, papier-mâché, cut-out photos, and classic hand-drawn. The talking-head interviews that provide commentary are also livened up with clever labels describing their professions and relation to the band. The filmmaking style matches the band’s sense of humor and playfulness perfectly. It’s so refreshing to see the directorial vision of a documentary appropriately parallel and thus comment on the sensibilities of the artist being profiled, as that’s so often not the case.
Even through changing members, managers, and record labels, one thing has remained true for the two men who make up Sparks: their brotherly bond has never been in doubt. I wasn’t a fan of the band before watching “The Sparks Brothers,” but watching this film made me jealous of those who have been since the beginning.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Highly energetic and with a sense of fun that matches the band’s sensibilities, “The Sparks Brothers” made me a fan of this band, which I had previously never heard of.
THE BAD – It’s a bit long, although that’s necessary to tell the full story of the band’s extensive career.