Movie Review: The Sparks Brothers

The Sparks Brothers had a cameo on The Gilmore Girls in an episode where the town of Star’s Hollow was invaded by a horde of buskers. Hoping to have their shot at being discovered, after the local troubadour snagged an opening gig for Neil Young, the town became a hot spot for all manner of musician and band. There’s a deep irony to their appearance since the legendary cult duo have maintained an influential yet niche presence in the music scene for 50 years but are arguably still waiting to be “discovered”. Possibly a nod to one of their breakthrough hits, ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us’, a recurring theme in Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino’s enduring The Gilmore Girls TV show… the creators feature as interviewees in the biographical documentary, The Sparks Brothers. Hopefully Edgar Wright’s eye-opening chronicle of their 25 studio albums and decades-long journey from obscurity to relative obscurity could finally tip the balance.

All this is to say that it came as some surprise that the distinct pair, Russell and Ron Mael, the lead singer and songwriter/pianist of Sparks, should have their own music documentary. Russell has always been the frontman and eye candy for Sparks yet there’s a strange symbiotic relationship where Ron is just as important – think Bono and The Edge. Speaking of people who go by one-word names, it’s equally surprising to see just how many people have been influenced and inspired by the legendary duo’s contributions over the years. Beck and Flea, two icons from the rock alternative movement of the ’90s offer their perspectives on the group with the Red Hot Chili Peppers opening for them at one point. Flea’s absurd sense of humour and experimental edge have resonance but it’s Beck who makes even more sense as a disciple. Having developed his own experimental sound, messing with tape cassettes in his early days, his entire career could have been modelled on the art, music and verve of Sparks.

Having grown up in an average American family, the Mael brothers took a cinematic edge to their music, combining sound and performance to create a mood in a similar way to film. Yet, the enigmatic group weren’t necessarily going for convention or any specific genre as evidenced by many rejections with only a niche audience connecting with the music and spirit. Heading over to the UK, where their punk undertones were better received – they waved their flag and their band got some real attention and appreciation on national TV. Avid fans of The Beatles, whose evolution and reinvention inspired them, their trans-Atlantic trip was opposite to that of the Fab Four’s with just as many similarities with other British supergroup, Monty Python.

Russell’s floppy hair and good looks obviously latched onto some of the Beatlemania fever while Ron’s Charlie Chaplin meets Hitler sense of style made him a strong counterpoint. Being referenced in Paul McCartney’s music video, you could say their unforgettable and even iconic vibrations did permeate the pop culture bubble. Sticking to their guns, the Sparks Brothers have continued their musical odyssey without being led astray by fame or fortune. Being an influence to many contemporary filmmakers, music artists and comedians, the duo should be a true inspiration to any artist in any art form. Whether the message is to “keep on, keeping on”, “be true to yourself” or “good things come to those who wait”… there are a great many platitudes that intertwine in this entertaining and quizzical music documentary.

sparks brothers documentary

“Together forever.”

Edgar Wright is the director and creative force behind Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Baby Driver, Last Night in Soho, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and now The Sparks Brothers. While it may seem unusual for a film director of his calibre to be directing a music documentary, he showed his immense appreciation for music with the Baby Driver soundtrack and could have possibly modelled the film’s protagonist on his own Walkman days – having first seen Sparks play on Top of the Pops at age 5. Working alongside the equally famous duo of Nick Pegg and Simon Frost, who loaned their voices to this documentary, he’s used to working with a performance pair with fraternal chemistry. Add his comic sensibility and artful executions and this makes Wright perfectly positioned to bring the Sparks story to life as he explores “how one rock band can be successful, underrated, hugely influential and criminally overlooked”.

Moving in a chronological order, we get snippets from their childhood for a greater comprehension of their frame of reference. Highlighting the things that inspired them and interviewing a selection of the big names that adore them, Wright dives headlong into relaying their journey unpacking each album, its critical response and the evolution of the group and their line-up. While paying tribute to 25 studio albums and a group sporting about 300 tracks, The Sparks Brothers maintains good pacing. At over 2 hours it’s long for a documentary, but the elusive music, artful chronicle, aging process and swirling zeitgeist keep things interesting with photos, footage, interviews and creative recreations. It’s a little repetitive for those unfamiliar with their music or legacy, but their subversive comic edge and playfulness offer some welcome comic relief.

Interviewing the Sparks Brothers, you can understand why Mike Myers is such a fan, appreciative of their absurdist, straight-faced and irreverent blend of art and entertainment. Their signature tone spills into the film itself, messing with talking head titles and creating amusing interludes. This self-deprecation and attempt to never take anything too seriously has created a strange vacuum, which has propelled and restricted Sparks. Playing to a niche audience, the inside joke isn’t for everyone and whether skating close to the edge with their lyrics, appearance, music or social commentary, they’ve created a fuzzy atmosphere that’s enhanced their enigma and simultaneously limited their mainstream appeal. The Sparks Brothers have been associated with several films and directors over the years, trying to let their art spread its wings into other formats. While they had a quiet period, they’ve never stopped working and have remained conservative enough with their income to survive “drought” years.

The Sparks Brothers is a wonderful testament to musicians who have managed to earn the respect of their peers and keep a career spanning five decades. While the rollercoaster ride has had its highs and lows, their passion and commitment has kept them on the rails and doing what they love. Creating and directing their own sound, tone and movement, they’ve remained timeless, of the age and somehow above it. The moustache and hairdo may have evolved but their undying spirit remains steadfast as they continue to perform, having done the unthinkable by playing every studio album to a live audience in just as many days. Answering some burning questions for fans, trying to shine the spotlight without giving away the riddle and steering into the ambivalence of playful seriousness, this music documentary is entertaining, inspiring and eye-opening, even if a little longwinded.

The bottom line: Amusing