As a fanboy, director Edgar Wright has thrown everything into The Sparks Brothers, a documentary covering the American art-pop-rock band Sparks, including the kitchen sink and himself. From the get-go, Sparks even provide their own humorous fanfare music over the production company logos, making it clear this will be a wild documentary. Not because of any sort of sordid history of Sparks, a band composed of brothers Ron (keyboards) and Russell Mael (vocals), because these guys seem to live pretty clean lives. No, it’s a wild doc because Wright is more than aware that the fandom he and the 80+ interviewees share is still one of semi-obscurity for most everyone else, and it would serve him well to make an energetic presentation of a band that has released 25 albums yet never quite broke out into the mainstream. Regardless, this rockumentary is expansive but enjoyable.
Made over the course of three years, Wright has taken it upon himself to tell the entire story of Sparks by covering every album released since 1971, in addition to letting the Mael brothers clear up certain mysteries regarding themselves. While this peeling back of the layers is not without a level of humor fitting their personalities, I can only imagine super fans getting a real thrill out of this learning experience. At the same time, those new to hearing about this group (like myself) can appreciate what it is they’ve been putting out into the world for the last several decades.
As mentioned, Wright interviewed a wide variety of people for this documentary, including Beck, Flea, Patton Oswalt, Mike Myers, Neil Gaiman, Bjork, Fred Armisen, Scott Aukerman, Jason Schwartzman, and “Weird Al” Yankovic. The common thread heard from all is how much they enjoy the gonzo energy of Sparks, in addition to how much they respect them for never changing. We learn all the ways the band influenced other artists and their eccentric ways, but there’s also a strong understanding that Sparks was never a band willing to compromise.
Perhaps that’s why, at 135 minutes, it feels like a bit too long of a time to spend with this group without delving too far into territory that extends beyond rampant praise for their art. The film does verge towards something different whenever discussing how Sparks came close to bursting onto the scene in bigger ways, such as how the Mael brothers’ love of movies allowed for interesting opportunities that either fell apart or didn’t work out the way that was intended. That said, it’s not too long before we jump back into more amusing anecdotes, animated sequences, or other ways to spend time understanding the band’s history.
Should there have been deeper probing (future Sparks album title?) into various moments in the band’s history? Perhaps. Maybe there’s nothing more than what’s said, or a lack of naysayers who have strong feelings outside of the group’s vibe not being everyone’s tempo. Regardless, Wright clearly wants to give viewers all of the insight he can in as thrilling of a way possible for rock documentaries. It doesn’t hurt that Ron and Russell Mael are extremely fun people to watch, whether on stage or in interviews.
Using gorgeously shot black and white footage to distinguish the modern interview segments/testimonials from the archival footage and music videos, no one is going to confuse The Sparks Brothers as any kind of poor attempt to capture the ridiculous magic that is this rock duo’s everlasting talent. Yes, it is neat to see Wright stretch his abilities to the documentary world, and much like his features, Wright knows what he’s doing behind the camera here as well.
With a borderline exhausting amount of material to work with, The Sparks Brothers feels like the one shot this band will have at getting their story told honestly. As a result, in terms of enthusiasm, no stone is left unturned covering them. The wild amount of praise that exists for this obscure group certainly is infectious, which is enough to make it a worthwhile endeavor for anyone wanting a little more absurdity in their pop music.
[Note: For those wanting to learn more about Sparks through their music, Edgar Wright has assembled a Spotify playlist ready for your enjoyment.]