“Wright navigates the ever-changing nature of the band with ease.”
The first thing you need to know about Sparks is that they are nearly impossible to pin down. Glam pop? Electronic dance? Orchestral parody? Their music is always shifting and changing, never staying still and never looking back. Given that they have been around for five decades, that makes their discography an intimidating prospect, and their story complicated. This makes Edgar Wright’s attempt to tackle them in a documentary particularly admirable.
The Sparks Brothers follows Ron and Russell Mael, brothers who make up the band Sparks. The film goes from their early outings in LA, through to working with super producer Giorgio Moroder. The dark times in the 1990s right through to their modern resurgence. They are a band that has hopped from one niche to the next, and Wright is without a doubt the right man to have made this film, mainly because Sparks are undeniably one of the funniest bands around, perhaps the original meme band with song titles such as Sextown U.S.A, and D*ck Around. Wright’s sense of humour combined with the Mael brothers’ helps the film shine and really brings out the joy in their music.
The film takes a fairly standard approach to their story, working chronologically through their albums, and archive footage with an incredible range of talking heads, from Tony Visconti and Björk to Jonathan Ross, and even Wright himself. This is something important to the film, Sparks are very much a cult band, and Wright revels in that element of their myth, inserting his own fandom as well as allowing interviewees to indulge theirs. Given that I too was a fan of Sparks coming into the film, it is hard for me to say how this will play with the uninitiated, however for those who are already fans, the film feels like a wonderful celebration of their career, and one that is a long time coming.
One trap Wright doesn’t fall into is elevating the band into almost godlike status. Many music documentaries celebrate their subjects as though the bad times were merely a consequence of misunderstanding, or that they were simply ahead of their time. Instead Sparks’ lack of success is attributed to their attitude of sticking to their gut. Yes, this might not always work out, but this is of no massive concern as long as the band believe it is the right sound for them at that moment. When it flops, it flops. Wright doesn’t shy away from this, nor does he attempt to justify it, he instead simply admires the band for sticking to who they are.
In short, The Sparks Brothers is a fantastic celebration of a band that is both incredibly influential and massively undervalued. Though the enormity of their work may be intimidating, Wright manages to make it feel inviting, stripping away all notions of gatekeeping. Brilliant for both new and long-time fans, Edgar Wright’s documentary debut takes a fairly standard format and allows the Mael brothers to breathe fresh life into it with the sheer madness of their story.
Director: Edgar Wright
Cast: Ron Mael, Russell Mael, Beck, Björk, Jason Schwartzman
Producer: Kate Griffiths, George Hencken, Serena Kennedy, Nira Park, Laura Richardson, Leo Thompson
Header image courtesy of Sundance Institute