If you've never heard of the pop band Sparks, you're not alone. Heck, director Edgar Wright ("Shaun of the Dead") is basically counting on that.
"The Sparks Brothers" is a loving, light trip down memory lane with two real-life brothers, Ron and Russell Mael, who just so happen to be the most influential musicians you've never heard of before.
Perhaps a different biopic documentary might have tried to unpack its subjects' innermost thoughts, or expose what makes them tick. In "The Sparks Brothers," we never get that far because we first need to know who the hell these guys even are and why are they worthy of their own documentary?
What we learn is that the group Sparks (made up of Russ as lead vocal, Ron as keyboard player and songwriter, and backed by various rotating musicians over their 50-year careers) is "your favorite band's favorite band" as one in the film puts it. They were a bigger hit in the UK than they were in the States, but even then, they weren't chart-toppers. Their styles and definitely their personalities were too uniquely eccentric to ever allow them to be mainstream superstars.
Instead, from album to album (they've made 25 since 1971), they'd change their musical approach, all but alienating those that might have been a fan of the last album's music. The result is a duo that has continued to inspire artists across all genres of music, and surely many contemporary musicians owe at least part of their success to the trails blazed by Sparks.
Russell was the lead, the "charismatic one," but who had a voice that was entirely uncommon. Ron is one of the more compelling human beings you'll ever come across, with a face that sucks all the air out of a room and mesmerizes men and women alike. Is that a Hitler mustache, a Chaplin tribute, or something else altogether? Russ has a voice you can't let go of and Ron has a presence you can't look away from.
Together, they flirted with mainstream success, with early-career ups, downs and near-misses, before finally settling into a groove as that band that just continues to create art for art's sake. That's an admirable place to be if you've "made it" in the industry and face pressures from record labels and corporate executives. Sparks' lack of A-list fame breeds some level of creative freedom for them, a freedom that has allowed them to continue to experiment and pioneer, just outside the view of the mainstream public eye.
So the question is: Why did they never make it "big time," and why haven't I heard of them? The answer is the central theme of the film, and Wright directs the movie both as a straight-forward biopic and as a movie that captures the fun, rebellious nature of the duo at its center. We hear from several musicians, actors and icons about how Sparks inspired their own careers, but Wright leads us through in linear fashion from one album to the next, all the way through their most recent 2020 album, "A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip." It's a smart choice not to gum up the movie with overdone flair...he knows that the Mael brothers are interesting enough on their own.
The Mael brothers appear throughout the film, side-by-side, and seem gleefully delighted yet somewhat unready to accept the fact that they are now finally being given the spotlight. They've gotten used to their own legend of being underground forces of nature, and being the center of all of this attention seems...unnatural.
Stick around through the end credits for a sequence that will delight those few that maybe had heard of Sparks going into this film, as it dispels any notion that this documentary will somehow water down the group's mysteriousness.
At two-hours and twenty-minutes, that might seem like a long time to dedicate to a documentary about musicians you're not familiar with, but this lengthy doc goes down as smooth as a 3-minute pop song. I confess that you may indeed not ending up liking the music of Sparks or becoming a fan of their body of work, but you will leave understanding just why they are considered by many to be one of the most important music duos of the last half-century.
Genre: Documentary, Music.
Run Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Featuring: Ron Mael, Russell Mael, Beck, Flea, Edgar Wright, Jane Wiedlin, Mike Myers, Fred Armisen, Giorgio Moroder, "Weird Al" Yankovic, Tony Visconti, Harley Feinstein.
Directed by Edgar Wright ("Baby Driver," "The World's End," "Hot Fuzz," "Shaun of the Dead").
"The Sparks Brothers" opens in theaters on Friday, June 18th, 2021.
Looking for a specific movie or review?