‘Sparks Brothers’ Pays Homage to Quirky Genius of Musical Duo

Forrest Hartman

 

THE SPARKS BROTHERS

3½ stars (out of 4)

Director: Edgar Wright

Documentary film featuring: Russell Mael, Ron Mael, Beck, Todd Rundgren, Mike Myers, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Flea

Available: In theaters beginning June 18

 

If you’ve never heard of the band Sparks, don’t feel bad, but do become aware.

 

To my personal embarrassment, I didn’t know about the group until watching Edgar Wright’s engaging documentary The Sparks Brothers.  Along with an undergrad degree in communications, I have a minor in music, and playing guitar is one of my most passionate hobbies. I’ve even earned a dollar or two on weekends cranking out cover songs for pubs and restaurants, which is all to say I consider myself musically literate. Yet Sparks was a blind spot for decades. Today, I thank Wright for correcting that.

 

The Sparks Brothers is a delightful meditation on pop music that plays like a cross between the 1984 mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap and the decidedly serious Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.  With the film, Wright (a confessed Sparks fan) takes a deep dive into the music of Russell and Ron Mael, the sibling duo at the heart of the band. The brothers (along with a rotating cast of collaborators) have cranked out original tunes for more than five decades, somehow producing 24 studio albums and generating enough buzz to inspire a documentary, while mostly avoiding mainstream popularity.

 

With The Sparks Brothers, Wright – best known as the guiding force behind Baby Driver, Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead – paints a loving and nostalgic picture of the Maels. This is appropriate because, regardless of how one feels about their music, they deserve to be known.

 

 

Perhaps the most interesting revelation in The Sparks Brothers is that the band largely avoided commercial relevance by refusing to sell out. From the Mael brothers’ earliest musical exploits in the late 1960s to the release of their 2020 album, “A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip,” they have remained fiercely independent. While other groups mutated in the interest of becoming more commercial, Ron Mael (the songwriter) insisted on penning quirky tunes with witty lyrics and backing tracks steeped in glam rock excess. That’s not to say that Sparks has been stuck in a rut for 50 years. Quite the opposite. The band has flirted with hard-driving progressive rock, synth-based pop and movie music, and it has done all of this well enough to keep working. The thing is, all these changes have been artistic choices -- not shifts engineered by a producer or music label. One has to admire the integrity, even if it is why the band remains obscure.

 

All of this noted, my ignorance of Sparks is hardly universal. Wright has gathered an impressive array of Sparks fans to talk about the band -- virtually all of them better known than the Maels. During the course of the 135-minute film, we hear from Beck, Todd Rundgren, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Jack Antonoff of Bleachers, and Nick Rhodes and John Taylor of Duran Duran. Wright also interviews celebrity fans who are known best for things beyond music. These include actor Mike Myers, writer Neil Gaiman and comedian Patton Oswalt. There are more folks as well, and the list of “in-the-know” people is so hip that it made me feel sillier for having somehow missed 50 years of the Maels’ creative output.  

 

As any good documentarian would, Wright spends an impressive amount of time with the Maels, allowing them to talk about their musical journey firsthand. Russell (the singer), we learn, was always the heartthrob. Blessed with boyish good looks, an impressive rock star mane and oodles of charisma, he often seemed destined to take the band to the next level. Ron, on the other hand, always played the role of quirky musical genius. Although arguably handsome, he purposely downplayed his natural physical assets, adopting a Charlie Chaplin-style mustache that many rightfully claim made him look like Adolph Hitler.

 

 

The Maels are both funny as well. One might expect senior citizen musicians (both are in their 70s) who never quite broke through to be jaded and angry, but there are no sour grapes in the interviews. If anything, it’s their fans who express regret that the Maels aren’t better known. Russell and Ron are seemingly open about their creative process but both impish enough that we’re never sure they’re telling the entire truth. Coming from less charismatic people, that might get frustrating but, with them, it’s charming.

 

The Sparks Brothers is as entertaining as it is informative, and music lovers should leave the film both appreciating the Maels’ contributions to pop music and admiring Wright’s ability to tell their story. Furthermore, the folks who – like me – came into this project unaware of the band will, no doubt, spend a few hours digging through its rather impressive back catalog. Not every movie leaves me with new downloads in my music library, but this one certainly did.

 

Author Bio:

 

Forrest Hartman, a Highbrow Magazine contributor, is a longtime entertainment journalist who teaches at the Department of Journalism & Public Relations at California State University, Chico.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

 

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Great review!

Email: 
tt.washingtondc@gmail.com

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