Filmmaker Edgar Wright chronicles roughly fifty years of work from the brothers Ron and Russell Mael, the co-founders and only constant members of band Sparks. Charting their rise to commercial success and subsequent peaks and valleys, Wright utilises interviews, archive footage and animation to bring the Sparks story to vivid life. The hardest working and most influential under-appreciated band ever, is celebrated and, perhaps, exposed.
Wright’s love for the band, their work and their outlook, is evident throughout the epic documentary. Wright’s style is playful and energetic and entirely consistent with the anarchic approach to music and expression. Visual gags and little subversions of documentary tropes work wonderfully to tell the tale of a very unusual duo. But as usual, Wright is far from all-style, no-substance. The film constitutes a real insight into the brothers, with occasionally uncomfortable results. This is perfect for articulating the unique allure and brilliance of sparks; the cleverness of their lyrics, the theatricality of their performance and the sheer subservice boldness of their expression, all laid out beautifully.
At the forefront of the band’s beliefs is that reinvention is key. They never want to capitalise on previous success to just produce the same albums over and over again. They find their sound, only to move on and wonder what might be next. This includes unusual collaborations with the likes of Giorgio Moroder. Wright can’t resist including the band’s flirtations with cinema, developing various unsuccessful projects throughout their career including collaborations with Jacque Tati and Tim Burton, which emphasises the cinematic quality of their sound. Through constant and sometimes painful experimentation the band is able to transform and resurge throughout the decades.
The most striking theme of the film is failure and perseverance. The film portrays the lengths and depths the band went to in an effort to be notices, and once mainstream success arrives it doesn’t stay long. This is a pattern in their career. One reinvention creates new fans who are then disappointed with their next iteration. The effect is that although they’ve been in the industry for half a century and achieved tremendous success at various points in their career they remain the outsiders. Their albums are the eternal secret treasure of the music world, passed between those in the know. It’s as though they are constantly trapped in the earliest stage of a hit music career. They will never become the establishment, and will always be the first to question what they’ve just produced.
Consequently Wright has generations of fans to interview. From the few early adopters, to the many who remember them first and foremost for their legendary appearance on Top of the Pops in 1974, and those who are only just finding out about them. Their willingness to embrace genres and collaborators from any generation ensures they continually generated new fanatics and Wright manages to capture them candidly and enthusiastically. There is a focus on the history of the band and fan enthusiasm, sometimes at the expense of technical commentary, explaining perhaps the effectiveness of the music and the context of their acts.
The Sparks Brothers is a highly effective introduction to the strangest pair in pop (or rock or electro or punk). Wright’s enthusiasm and gift for absorbing cinema make this an irresistible treat for Sparks fans and newcomers alike. He keeps his subjects at the heart of his film whilst utilising every trick in his considerable repertoire to breathe fresh life into the enduring band. It’s a delight.