The Sparks Brothers
Edgar Wright does a fantastic job encapsulating the heart, talent, and appeal surrounding a duo that was able to turn five decades into a legacy filled with truly fascinating music.
There’s just something about a music documentary that grabs me. Whether it’s about an artist I’m somewhat familiar with (HBO’s limited series The Defiant Ones) or a manager in the music industry I know absolutely nothing about (Beth Aala and Mike Myers’ Supermensch), I believe there is an inherent fascination built into a narrative about a figure’s impact in their respective industry regardless of a viewer’s pre-existing knowledge of said subject. Musical figures are especially fascinating because of how quickly musical trends can change on the pop charts, especially when rolling into a new decade. Is the figure going to mold well with the coming changes? Or will they be left in the dust so future acts can run where they walked in hopes the same doesn’t happen to them?
In terms of Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers, the answers for those questions would ultimately be more questions, dissecting the notions of relevance and “what’s truly popular” in a silly yet fun way that only musicians Ron and Russell Mael could do. The extremely talented director’s first foray into documentaries follows the history of Sparks, a musical duo that many consider to be “your favorite band’s favorite band.” The film follows the duo’s five-decade journey from humble beginnings to becoming one of the most influential, underrated duos in pop and rock. With all this setup, it begs the question: if they’re so beloved by a myriad of musical icons, why are they also considered underrated by those same icons? With Wright’s talent and cheekiness behind the camera, the answer is an engaging one with just enough silliness to keep it feeling in-line with its subjects.
The film is a full dive into the history of Sparks with guests such as Beck, Giorgio Moroder, Jane Wiedlin, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Flea, and so many others. The nearly two and a half hour film covers the duo’s twenty-five albums as well as their childhoods, the multiple evolutions of their sound, and even the influences that shaped the duo’s eccentric approach to creating music. The film does a phenomenal job keeping the pacing consistent throughout, turning what seems to be a daunting task into a final product that produces a retrospective that uses each album as a meaningful moment in the duo’s career. Regardless if it was a success or failure, it’s extremely fascinating to hear the best tracks on each album while discussing why that album was either a hit, ahead of its time, or rejected by the public. While Wright is clearly a huge fan of the duo (he even labels himself as “fanboy” in his interview segments), The Sparks Brothers does a great job of showing why such a talented duo could also put off certain music execs and even fans of their music.
Speaking of Edgar Wright, his direction of The Sparks Brothers is definitely subdued compared to his narrative works although not to the point of feeling non-existent. It makes sense that his style would mainly be put on the back burner, especially when the film has five decades of music history to cover in a bit over two hours. Thankfully though, his style definitely bleeds through in the dramatic recreations, bringing in multiple animation styles to give the multiple interviewees’ stories about the brothers a comedic flair and passion that feels right up Ron and Russell’s alley. There are even a couple cheeky edits here and there that feel akin to Wright’s other films. With all that said, what transpires is an execution that shows how talented Wright is, sprinkling in a style that perfectly compliments the story of Sparks without feeling excessive.
While the style of the film and its subjects practically bleed off the screen at times, I’d say my only minor complaint with The Sparks Brothers is that we don’t get enough of the brothers and where their lives are throughout the peaks and valleys of their careers. While the film dives deep into their childhoods, their personal lives basically become a mystery once the dive into each album begins. On the other hand, this is an intentional choice; many people (as well as the brothers themselves) love the mysterious nature surrounding Sparks outside of their music. They even make cheeky jokes about their personal lives throughout the film which I couldn’t help but love. I honestly became so enamored with their energy and discography that I couldn’t help but notice the one aspect of their story that felt sparse.
In the end though, that minor complaint isn’t enough to keep The Sparks Brothers from being just a fun and engaging film throughout. Edgar Wright’s passionate look at “your favorite band’s favorite band” is a film that can definitely turn an unaware viewer into a new fan of Sparks. While I don’t think the film will convert those who aren’t fans of the brothers’ sound, Wright does a fantastic job encapsulating the heart, talent, and appeal surrounding a duo that was able to turn five decades into a legacy filled with truly fascinating music. As someone who personally only knew of the duo’s song “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us” going into the film, I’ve gone from going in blind solely because it’s a music documentary from Edgar Wright to beginning to go through Sparks’ discography even as I write this review. If that doesn’t say enough about how fun and intriguing The Sparks Brothers is, I don’t know what will.