“Get a bunch of musicians together long enough, and the conversation will always turn to Sparks,” says one of the many many interviewees in The Sparks Brothers: a documentary film from director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver) about the staggeringly vast career of Sparks.
Whether it be Weird Al Jankovic, Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), author Neil Gaiman, comedian and music buff Adam Buxton, or big hitters such as Beck, a gaggle of enthusiasts fall over themselves to enthuse about this heavily beloved but undeniably hard to decipher band, consisting of brothers Ron and Russell Mael.
Staring straight down the lens, the two brothers recount their incredible 50 year career which Wright intercuts with copious archive footage, a cacophony of cooing celebs, a gaggle of past band members and album technicians, plus distinctive animations that bring to life a library of anecdotes.
Wright, a self-proclaimed Sparks fanatic, cannot help but also insert himself into the film either by being heard off camera or grinning for a vox pop as someone who almost can’t quite believe their luck.
Part of the appeal of The Sparks Brothers is a healthy air of mystique. The Mael brothers have had such dramatic ups and downs in the fortunes of their 25 albums (and counting) due in large part to unusual song structures, eclectic narrative style lyrics, and a constantly shifting sound that has incorporated pop, rock, disco, techno, big band, new wave, and orchestral stylings.
Whilst not shy about doing press, the sharp moustached otherworldly Ron and handsome twinkling eye Russell have an air of knowing that for many, they are an utter bafflement.
Is The Sparks Brother Worth Watching?
Even if you know very little of Sparks music, The Sparks Brothers takes you on a thoroughly engaging through line throughout their discography by primarily focusing on Ron and Russell themselves.
The documentary starts with their film obsessed childhood, covers several aborted or doomed attempts to be involved with film themselves, and arrives neatly at the 2021 release of Annette, for which Sparks wrote the story and music.
They’ve come a long way since the highly iconic Top of the Pops appearance in 1974 performing smash hit, This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us.
The one thing you will most likely take away from Sparks (aside from a desire to dig in to their back catalogue – I’m now 10 albums in with 15 to go) is how dedicated they were and are to making the music they want to make.
Ron’s lyrics are dug into as they are frequently highly humorous or self deprecatingly tragic. Songs like “When Do I Get To Sing ‘My Way’” bemoan their existence frequently on the fringes, whilst lyrics such as “Some might find me borderline attractive from afar / but afar is not where I can stay, and there you are,” (Johnny Delusional from the amusingly entitled FFS collaboration with Franz Ferdinand) betray a very human vulnerability beneath the alien-like pop music.
Different bands have different approaches but show me one who can do a tour where every show was, chronologically, one of their albums played in its entirety.
Wright has put together a shiny gem that celebrates and educates about Sparks and should be a hit for both fans of the band and those coming in cold. As for me: I hear the thunder of stampeding rhinos, elephants, and tacky tigers, and it ain’t me who’s gonna leave.
Words by Mike Record