This review was first published at its premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Near the beginning of Edgar Wright’s documentary “The Sparks Brothers,” actor Jason Schwartzman comes on screen to make an unusual admission. “Honestly, I don’t want to see this movie,” he says of the film about the rock band Sparks. “I don’t want to know too much about them.”
It’s a playful admission and an interesting way to kick off two hours and 20 minutes that tell us a whole lot about Ron and Russell Mael, the brothers who make up Sparks. After all, if one of the people that Wright has recruited to tell us how great they are doesn’t even want to watch the film, what’s the point?
The point, of course, is that Schwartzman’s demurral is entirely in keeping with the idiosyncratic nature of Sparks, a band that has managed to be influential and vital for almost 50 years, without ever giving away too much and without losing an air of mystery. They’ve had hits and near-hits with hyperactive glam rock, synthesizer-heavy dance music, quintessential quirky ’80s new wave, big melodramatic ballads and flat-out art music. Confusing an audience that embraces that confusion has been their m.o. all along, so why should a movie about them be any different?
And Wright takes that confusion and that playfulness to heart in “The Sparks Brothers,” which premiered on Saturday at the virtual Sundance Film Festival. We may learn lots of facts about Sparks during the course of the movie, and more than a few myths and legends as well, but there’s no sense that this is the definitive chronicle or that we’re getting to the heart of what makes these guys tick. Instead, it’s an obsessive fan — or, in this case, a whole lot of obsessive fans — blathering on about why Sparks is so great, and then showing you the video clips and concert footage to make a convincing case.
It’s excessive and exhausting and elusive, and entirely in keeping with the curious career of the Mael brothers.
Wright is a director whose narrative films (“Baby Driver,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” “Shaun of the Dead”) make extensive and essential use of pop music, so it’s no surprise that he brings similar passion and mischievousness to his first documentary. He calls Sparks “underrated, hugely successful, influential and overlooked at the same time,” and uses the film not to explain those contradictions but to revel in them.
The Mael brothers grew up in Southern California, with a mother who once drove them to Las Vegas to see the Beatles and parents who would take them to the movies without any concern for when the films actually started. (Walking in mid-movie may have influenced the rather jagged sense of narrative in Ron’s lyrics.) Younger brother Russell was the quarterback of the football team in high school, but athletics was less enticing than music, which they started playing together in the 1960s, influenced by bands like the Who and the Kinks.
But they didn’t sound or look like those bands. With a shaggy-haired lead singer (Russell) who looked like a teen idol but was fond of singing in an odd, strangled falsetto, and a deadpan keyboardist with a disturbing little mustache, they brought a theatrical brio to music that sounded as out of time in 1967 as it does in 2021.
The brothers tell some of this story sitting side-by-side in elegant black-and-white interview segments. They’re amiable and a bit affected, dropping anecdotes without ever giving the sense that they’re ready to do any soul-searching for the cameras. And Wright surrounds them with an array of talking heads and with clips assembled with an ADHD editing style. His barrage of images doesn’t always contain footage of the Maels but always has some peripheral connection to what’s being said — so if, for instance, Todd Rundgren uses the word evolution in talking about Sparks’ early music, we’ll see one or two seconds of a butterfly coming out of a cocoon, and if we’re told that their second album was more experimental than their first, here’s a shot of a car driving off a cliff.
The obvious questions aren’t addressed in the slightest. We don’t know why Russell, a singer who said he was influenced by Roger Daltrey and Ray Davies, would so often affect that high voice, or what made Ron decide to grow a very Hitleresque mustache. (Chaplinesque, too, but the Hitler comparison is the one that got all the attention.)
But it’s sort of exhilarating to run through Sparks’ career not belaboring the obvious but celebrating the glorious, whether it’s the energy of the breakthrough “Kimono My House” album, which made them stars in England, or the left turn of their work with disco producer Giorgio Moroder on songs like “The Number One Song in Heaven,” or the nerve of late-peri0d songs like “Stravinsky’s Only Hit.” (Always self-conscious about working in pop music, the songs were replete with references to other music and name-drops of famous performers and composers.)
For a documentary that’s playful in how it’s put together, “The Sparks Brothers” is pretty standard in the way it’s organized: It starts at the beginning and moves chronologically through the band’s entire career, 50 years of peaks and valleys and consistently inventive work. (The title, by the way, is an in-joke: After the Maels’ first album flopped under the band name Halfnelson, a record company executive suggested they change their name to the Sparks Brothers, which they immediately rejected as being much too stupid.)
While the brothers themselves are a delightful presence in the film, they’re not terribly prone to introspection or analysis — so Wright brings in a huge array of colleagues to deliver the history, and famous fans to deliver their versions of What Sparks Means to Me. The devotees range from Bjork to Flea to Beck to members of New Order and Depeche Mode, from Fred Armisen to Mike Myers to Neil Gaiman to Amy Sherman-Palladino, all of them wildly passionate and most of them pretty articulate.
At a certain point in the film’s chronology, though, all of the famous fans’ testimonies to Sparks’ persistence, endurance and reinvention start to sound awfully repetitive — they’re a cinematic version of the Sparks song “My Baby’s Taking Me Home,” which repeats that single lyric over and over. And anyway, the clips of the band’s work makes those points without needing so much help.
“If you don’t like this, we don’t care,” Ron Mael says of their later work in the film. “That’s kind of like the essence of what pop music should be.” But it’s hard to imagine encountering “The Sparks Brothers” and not finding something to like — and if you come into it as a fan of, say, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” or “Angst in My Pants” or “Cool Places” or “When Will I Get to Sing ‘My Way’” or their collaboration with Franz Ferdinand, the film will likely show you lots of other intriguing things to explore in the band’s discography.
And if you get to the end of “The Sparks Brothers” thinking you know the band, Ron and Russell will reward you with a mid-credits sequence in which they offer a number of outlandishly amusing myths about the band and the brothers. If Jason Schwartzman makes it all the way to the end of the movie, he’ll no doubt approve.