‘The Sparks Brothers’: Edgar Wright sheds light on an essential rock band
Director Edgar Wright recounts the 50-year career and various musical reinventions of the art-pop group Sparks with the documentary “The Sparks Brothers”.
You can always tell why someone starts a sentence with “Have you ever heard of…?”
When you come across one of these “Actually“guys at your local record store/watering hole/office/social media nightmare orchard, you just have to push it forward. A recommendation born out of overkill is not a recommendation at all, IMO.
Edgar Wright’s new rock documentary, “The Sparks Brothers,” is so fabulously the opposite of that, and it’s in theaters now. Here’s a band – cult favorite Sparks, aka brothers Russell and Ron Mael – who have endured in rather improbable ways over the decades. Their first single came out two years before Cher divorced Sonny, and yet I don’t think you’d call Sparks a household name.
(You could bet the farm your household is cooler than mine and probably keep your cows when it’s over, though.)
Sparks’ stamina and relative anonymity, according to Wright’s film, are as intertwined as the Maels’ shared DNA. When you stick to your artistic, if idiosyncratic, weapons, you’ll rarely be the flavor of the month, but you’ll always be someone’s taste, at least.
If you don’t already know your Mael brothers from your Marx brothers — I didn’t know him! — Wright has put together an almost scholarly introduction to their career. We talk about growing up in college, then in a comprehensive analysis of every album in their 25+ year discography. “The Sparks Brothers” gives us anecdotes about the production booth for the music bosses, a cultural context for the curious and grand pop history, an overarching storyline for people who just got in because “In the Heights” sold out at the theater. Even if you’re a Sparks freak, you’ll leave smarter.
The film points out that the band was bigger in Europe, especially in the UK, than it ever was in the US. In fact, they actively pursued the perception of being a British act, and they broke out on “Top of the Pops.” It’s part of the best-kept secret peg, and as the engine of musical discovery, I thought “The Sparks Brothers” was roaring. Check my Spotify history right after leaving the screening if you don’t believe me.
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First hit ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us’ (1974) frolics with the menace of the mannered campaign of its spiritual younger brother, ‘Wuthering Heights’ (not my favorite Kate Bush track, but no one did not ask for it). Electronic pulse jumps like “The Number One Song In Heaven” (1979) and “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way'” (1994) scratch itch as diverse as Pet Shop Boys and Cut Copy.
And, of course, Sparks did most of it first.
This being a doc, there are bosses, and they talk. Wright’s narrative assistants really run the gamut. There are the Folks Who Were in the Room, like Todd Rundgren, Giorgio Moroder and Jane Wiedlin, all collaborators; pop descendants like Björk, Jack Antonoff and “Weird Al” Yankovic; celebrity fans, like Patton Oswalt and Mike Myers; a handful of everyday fans, the loveliest authorities of all; and even Wright himself.
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Being a Wright movie – see ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’ and ‘Hot Fuzz’ – ‘The Sparks Brothers’ zigs and zags with a markedly altered wit and some genuinely funny moments, many courtesy of the ever-quirky Maels . You’ll leave your seat with a crush on at least one septuagenarian.
The only faults I would find are that the stuff is long as hell (because of the discography) and that, well, Wright keeps it a mystery. The Maels’ personal lives are shrouded in obscurity, and so they remain so for the most part. I’m curious, of course, and the music is more than enough to entertain. But it would have been nice to get even the briefest of personality sketches, says this Pisces.
So why does Wright want to tell the world about Sparks? Like all the best musical recordings, this one comes without even a hint of snobbery. It’s genuine, wild, geek-out generosity. I love it, says “The Sparks Brothers”, and I know you do too.
About this story
We Love This So Much is Austin360’s recurring series of pop culture recommendations.