10 Things I Learned from The Sparks Brothers

The Sparks Brothers is a music documentary about Russell and Ron Mael, whose rock band ambitions have kept them in the music business with 25 studio albums, 300 tracks and 50 years. It’s a remarkable accomplishment, which has lead them from high profile live TV performances to the dizzying stunt of performing all 25 of their albums live over just as many days. Having seen them perform in Top of the Pops in 1979 at the age of 5, director Edgar Wright has been a lifelong fan and is perfectly poised to drive this documentary chronicle of the Sparks story.

The documentary features photos, concert footage, TV archival content and interviews with the likes of Beck, Mike Myers and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Having black and white interviews with playful titles for the interviewees, The Sparks Brothers tries to capture the essence of the band in the tone of the documentary. A playful seriousness and cult notoriety has kept the duo enigmatic, elusive and niche to the point of obscure in-the-know fame. Referenced in a Paul McCartney music video and influencing a great many performance artists including filmmakers, comedians and musicians, their efforts have been noted but their dues are now only being paid now 50 years into the game.

The Sparks Brothers should be an inspiration to all artists in whichever art form. Their lessons may seem like platitudes in the grand scheme of things but are testament to the enduring spirit of The Sparks Brothers. Here are 10 things we can learn from the long-running duo.

1. “Stay True to Yourself”

The Sparks Brothers have never compromised on their music, been afraid of the public eye or given up creative control. Their music has always been niche, struggling to find an audience in the United States they moved across the pond to the United Kingdom. Possibly taking a note from Dadaism, their art carries a subversive yet playful sense of humour, a proponent of their trademark performance elements and stage personas. Having been associated with cinema in curating their sound, performance and mood, they’re used to directing themselves and steering their own course. Attached to several films and big name directors over the years, they struggled to find the right synergy, timing and project – but their perseverance paid off. While the Beatles were a major influence and styles evolved over time across appearance and sound, Russell and Ron stuck to their trademark elements.

2. “Keep Going…”

Many musicians start a band and expect to make it within a few years of touring and recording. Unfortunately, in most cases bands and recording artists don’t make it overnight. Keeping a group of people together and on the same path is a miracle in itself. In many industries its the behind-the-scenes work that goes unnoticed until a perfect storm of timing, luck and diligence finally pay off. The Sparks Brothers serve as living proof that through the highs and lows you may never be “discovered” but hard work has a cumulative effect.

3. “Love What You Do”

The Sparks Brothers have amassed a modest degree of fame and fortune over the last 5 decades. While this may have been an ambition, it wasn’t a driving force behind their music. Art for art’s sake has made the duo timeless in their own way, bowing to trends in each age yet managing to hover above it all simultaneously. Making music that challenges the listener seems to have been a motivation, to stay at the cutting edge with lyrics and sound that pushed boundaries and comfort levels with album art that undermined and poked fun at the establishment. While they’ve endeavoured to not work a day in their lives, it’s come from their undying passion for the art.

sparks brothers documentary

4. “Never Give Up”

If The Sparks Brothers were able to stick to their guns for 5 decades and keep the flame alive, there’s no reason why we can’t follow their good example. You can always try to justify your excuses with paper walls but when you think about it you will find a way for the things that truly matter. The music industry has been slow to change and favours certain formulas over others but Sparks proves there’s a place for anyone who’s dedicated to the craft and willing to stick it out.

5. “Family Matters”

Ron and Russell look similar to the point that you wonder if they are twins. Their personal styles make them distinct, iconic and difficult not to recognise – especially when together. Yet they’re a few years apart with Ron being slightly older than Russell. As brothers they’re bonded by blood, yet their symbiotic relationship has made them equally essential to the group’s longevity. Jokingly undercutting one another as the true front man of Sparks, their yes/no spirit means they’re both equally important with Russell as the lead singer and Ron as pianist and lyricist.

6. “Patience Young Grasshopper”

Sparks may never have got off the ground if it wasn’t for the legendary Todd Rundgren, whose influence was immense in their early days. He believed in the band and threw his weight behind promoting them, which led to a many opportunities. While you may never find a champion, Russell and Ron kept going even when their music wasn’t deemed radio-friendly enough. They could have caved and accepted day job fates but kept pushing the dream in spite of suffering a number of failures along the way.

sparks brothers documentary

7. “Critics Are People Too”

They say no one ever built a statue to a critic and while Roger Ebert is one guy who may be entitled to be the exception, if you’re serious about your craft, you’ve got to be able to take criticism. You don’t have to listen or adjust to everyone’s comments. It’s about taking the good from the bad and seeing the process as constructive. Being a cult rock act, The Sparks Brothers have never felt the pressure to appease fans or critics. Carving their own path, they’ve been an inspiration to other bands who often face arrested development in the face of fan pressure to stick to a certain era or become a traveling greatest hits jukebox

8. “Don’t Be Afraid of Change”

The Sparks Brothers have managed to stick around for decades. The brothers may have aged but they’ve managed to stay relevant. Adjusting their sound based on the technology of the time, remaining experimental and cutting edge in their adoption of elements and open to the possibility of venturing into other art forms they’ve been adaptive and flexible to their environment, reflecting without necessarily adopting. Their fearless attitude comes with the willingness to accept certain sacrifices but their dedication to their art has propelled their rollercoaster ride in the good and bad times.

9. “Be Content In Every Moment”

When you fail and get up again, you can become invincible to the weight of expectations you’ve put upon yourself. Knowing you’ll be fine, land on your feet and keep going means you can progress without hesitation and restriction. The Sparks Brothers seem to love what they do so much they’d do it for free. Untethering themselves from the grip of fame, fortune and the rat race means they can operate on their own terms, free from the trappings and vices of society. The Mael brothers embody this experimental verve where there’s always a safety net, content with their wild life experiences and their lot whether they win or lose.

10. “Pursue and Enjoy Your Freedom”

The Sparks Brothers wrote a song called Everybody’s Stupid. Ron’s look has been compared with Charlie Chaplin and Hitler. They’ve never been tied down by what people think. They’ve stuck within the music recording and touring business by releasing albums, a natural outpouring of any music artist who’s able to continue doing so and an established way of making a living off the music. As much as they’ve bowed to this convention, their journeys have been experimental and orientated around freedom of expression. From posing as a married couple, presenting a kidnapping situation as an album cover concept, doing a seemingly impossible 25 album performance and spawning lyrics that poke fun at the establishment – they’ve remained edgy in their satirical commentary, art and pursuit of freedom.