The Sparks Brothers

The Sparks Brothers.
The Sparks Brothers.
Photo: Showmax


The Sparks Brothers




4/5 Stars


An in-depth documentary about Ron and Russell Mael, the brothers behind the constantly evolving cult band, Sparks, who were always so ahead of the game at creating cutting-edge music that would predict whole musical trends that they were constantly less successful than the people they inspired. Making extensive use of archival footage – including plenty of music videos and live performances, of course - and recent interviews with dozens of fans (both famous and otherwise), bandmates, managers, producers, and, most pertinently, the brothers Mael themselves, the documentary charts the brothers' troubled formation of Sparks in the late '60s through their one moment of genuine super-stardom in the mid-'70s when their eccentric brand of glam-pop actually matched the prevailing pop trends at the time, through the rest of a career that would earn them a devoted cult following, little commercial success, and an influence on arguably more rock and pop musicians than anyone outside of the biggest hitters of the 1960s and 1970s.


Despite being born in 1981, my "musical home" has always been that magical decade between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s - even as my musical tastes have exploded beyond those particular borders as I've grown older. I grew up listening almost exclusively to the Beatles and, by my early 20s, knew an awful lot more about that particular musical epoch than 99% of people my age, let alone younger Millennials and Gen-Z'ers.

Sparks, who released their first album in arguably the greatest ever year for popular music (1971; 1969 is the only other correct answer), however, were a massive blind spot for me until very recently. I had heard of them, and I certainly remember that one video of theirs that VH1 repeatedly aired that featured this odd-looking dude with a Hitler moustache and hilariously long fakey arms with which he mimed playing the piano but I had never actively listened to any of their music. The closest I came to Sparks was Canadian "alt-country" artist Neko Case's brilliant cover of Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth. And, no, I still can't figure out what song that visually unforgettable music video was for.  

When I heard last year that one of my all-time favourite filmmakers, Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim, Last Night in Soho, Hot Fuzz), was making a documentary about the band – though, more accurately, the duo: the Mael brothers are the only consistent part of Sparks and Ron Mael wrote all of their hundreds of songs – I knew it was time to begin rectifying my lack of familiarity with their music. I logged onto Deezer and checked out their best-known and best-loved album, Kimono My House, which is home to their best-known and best-loved song, This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us, and would you know it, it is indeed a great album. As are a few of the songs I checked out from the albums surrounding it.

As Wright's excellent doc shows, however, Sparks' early '70s glam-rock period may have been their most commercially successful (by, like, a mile), but it's only a very small piece in the puzzle that is Sparks. It's probably also the only period when Sparks' music made sense to the time it was released. Ron's wryly and sometimes absurdly funny lyrics sat easily next to the likes of Steely Dan and 10cc, and the music itself was... actually also quite a lot like 10cc, but even more eccentric. And in an era where camp, androgyny, sexual ambiguity, and high theatrics thrived, the Mael brothers, working with a crack band of session musicians to fill out their sound, slotted right in.

Up to this point in the Sparks Brothers, the story of Sparks is fairly run-of-the-mill as we follow these young music geeks in their struggle to form a band, find a manager, find the right producer  (Todd Rundgren – whose own eccentric art-pop sensibilities were a perfect fit for the duo) and then find some real fame with Russell as the somewhat unlikely heartthrob (he looked the part but his more-falsetto-than-falsetto voice certainly didn't sound the part) and Ron as the mysterious genius with his demented facial expressions and that infamous Hitler moustache, but this being an Edgar Wright doc about Sparks, though, even at its most straightforward, it's much funnier, more energetic and just plain joyous than most.

Wright's sense of humour and sharp editing is very much present and accounted for, and he is easily matched by the Sparks brothers themselves, who are never less than charming, fully engaged and wryly funny. The selection of interviews is also pretty inspired with a wide assortment of fans – including everyone from Neil Gaiman to the Sex Pistols' Steve Jones to Gilmore Girls creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, as well a bunch of non-famous fans who had a front-row to Sparks' commercial peak - providing further colour to an already plenty colourful story.      

It's also a film full of wonderful little touches that help the nearly 2.5 hours fly by. Whether it's a claymation re-enactment (as voiced, of course, by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) of what must surely be an apocryphal story (or maybe not...) of John Lennon seeing Sparks on Top of the Pops and calling Ringo Starr up to tell him, "you wouldn't believe what's on television – Marc Bolan is playing a song with Adolf Hitler!" or a hilarious exchange between Gaiman and an-off-camera Wright when the former tries to craft a story out of one Sparks' album covers, the film constantly reminds you that Sparks ain't an ordinary band and this ain't an ordinary music documentary. 

Still, even for a band as obscure and as eccentric as Sparks, the earlier parts of the film are more breathlessly entertaining than wildly revelatory. The Maels journey from nerdy teenagers to glam-rock superstars is inspiring and fun, but it's hardly particularly unique. And however much Ron and Russell play the welcoming hosts, they are clearly extremely reluctant to divulge too much about their personal lives, preferring to keep an air of mystery about them that extends from their romantic histories (or even their sexual persuasion) to the fact that they are Jewish and the children of immigrants who fled Nazi Europe, which makes the whole Hitler 'stache thing all the more ironic.

They're so cagey, in fact, that they appear during the credits to reel off a list of other increasingly ludicrous "facts" about them to throw people off from knowing them too well. It's a skit played for laughs – and it gets them – but it's a final reminder of the fact that we have a sanctioned Sparks documentary in the first place is something of a miracle and is mostly the result of Edgar Wright being a very passionate and persistent Sparks fanboy. 

And yet, once we move past that brief period in the early to mid-70s, the doc – and Wright – changes gear somewhat. It's still joyous and funny, but the rest of Sparks' story bucks convention at every turn and the documentary starts to embrace the emotional complexity that comes with this being the story of a pair of artists whose need to constantly evolve saw their career go in some very weird – and frequently groundbreaking and influential – directions that often left their established fans feeling alienated and abandoned.

There are no major break-ups and dust-ups (the Davies brothers, these guys are not), and it's a rock and roll story with precious little in the way of sex and drugs, but their sudden fall from commercial grace is no less dramatic because of it. More so, in fact, because it's all about artistic restlessness rather than the usual generic petty, drug-fuelled implosion. There's just something incredibly poignant about watching the brothers getting panned for releasing a synthesiser-heavy pop record at the onset of punk-rock when what they were basically doing was creating synth-pop, an absolutely gigantic genre that would catch on just a few years later, just as they moved onto something else entirely.

This happened over and over again until, finally, the stars realigned, and 21st-century indie-pop reclaimed Sparks as its own, which won them a whole new audience, a successful collaboration with Franz Ferdinand and tons of critical acclaim for each new project released. They even finally realised their goal of making a film musical (last year's Annette) after numerous failed attempts. Perhaps the most inspiring note on which the film ends, though, is to take a peek into the brothers' long-running routine of no matter how successful they were at any particular moment, they would head into their personal studio, day in and day out, to see what new music they could come up with; persevering in their art no matter what.    


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