Sundance Review: Edgar Wright's lively doc 'The Sparks Brothers' captures duos quirky allure
Courtesy of the Sundance Institute
Admittedly, I walked into Edgar Wright’s documentary “The Sparks Brothers” having zero knowledge of who Sparks was and turns out, the California based rock/pop duo at the center of the picture have quite the following. Wright - in his first documentary feature - captures the quirky essences and pop culture nostalgia around them. Featuring dozens of interviews with celebrities ala Mike Myers, Jason Schwartzman, and Flea, and prominent figures from the music industry (plus Sparks themselves Ron and Russel Mael), “The Sparks Brothers” is consistently engaging for the uneducated in the room (I can only imagine how it connects for those who grew up loving the band. It’s probably Nirvana).
Spark groupies will eat up all 135 minutes of Wright’s breezily paced film that sheds light on the secretive duo who subjects on camera admit is why they love them. Wright, whose expansive filmography includes cult classics “Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz,” and “The World’s End,” labels himself a fanboy and thus the perfect candidate to bring Sparks' story to screen. Utilizing numerous testimonials, and crafty animated sequences, Wright blends his visual style with the nonfictional narrative ceaselessly.
Capturing Ron and Russel Mael from their early college experimental years to today, folks old and new alike will be engrossed at how quickly Wright knocks down 50 years of their career with minimal hiccups. It’s easy to see why people adored these two and how their wild unpredictability made them viral before the days of tweets and Facebook. But it’s the dynamic between Ron, 75 and Russell, 73, that’s truly remarkable.
Growing up in the Los Angeles area, despite many assuming they were a British mainstay (guilty as charged), the brothers had an affection for performance and The Beatles: often linking their admiration for sports in conjunction with the thrill of getting on stage. During a tenure at UCLA, they started exploring their musical roots with Ron writing the tunes (and who would eventually play keyboards sporting the now iconic, depending on who you ask, Charlie Chaplin or Adolf Hitler mustache). Russell, the good looking rockstar, happily took frontman status.
Ironically, their music catalog was massively popular in the UK as opposed to the states and when you hear the single “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us” from the 1974 album “Kimono My House,” it’s a wonder they didn’t blow up immediately. But that changed with their “Top of the Pops” debut, a television program that could make or break whatever album you were pushing, and made them famous overnight. Yet knowing who Sparks would eventually become, it didn’t matter if one tune was a hit, the duo were constantly in rhythm, evolving their songwriting and subverting expectations at nearly every opportunity. Each album was stranger than the last.
But it’s not all peachy, “The Sparks Brothers” documents the oddball years when they hit career lows and dabbled with several stalled creative outlets like motion pictures (their biggest claim to fame in that category was the little seen disaster flick “Rollarcoaster”). Despite Wright’s structure becoming fidgety (all 25 Sparks albums get their due) the filmmaker understands the tough slope of getting audiences to watch a nearly two-and-a-half hour documentary about one of the most unorthodox bands in a generation. Oddly enough, my only complaint is the interviews with Ron and Russell seem disconnected from the motion picture. All the interviewees showcased have created this outlandish image of Sparks much in the same way their fans have, and to hear the actual, literal human beings debunk certain claims and set the record straight undermines the wacky interviews Wright has conjured.
Still, it would be wrong not to get their side of the story and Wright saves his best trick for last: humanizing Russel and Ron as they go about a strict daily schedule. Underneath the lore, these are brothers who work out everyday, visit the same coffee shop at precisely 4pm, and love recording in their cozy home studio. Wright makes this from the perspective of someone who loves and appreciates Sparks music, but he also isn’t afraid to pull back the curtain and dig a little deeper into what makes them tick.
THE SPARKS BROTHERS debuted in the Premieres section of the Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.