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Non-Review Review: The Sparks Brothers

The Sparks Brothers is a fan’s love letter. As the tagline helpfully summarises, it is a documentary about “your favourite band’s favourite band.”

Virtually everybody who appears on camera in The Sparks Brothers appears to rave about the eponymous siblings, Russ and Ron Mael, whose career has spanned more than half a century. There is a lot of joy and enthusiasm on display, even within fairly standard talking head sequences. Mike Myers takes a moment to playfully joke about how carefully the documentary team is getting is mole in focus, while the only character who has anything particularly negative or dismissive of the band is an animated Neil Tennant in a recollection from one of the band’s long-term associates.

An interesting framing…

This makes sense. The Sparks Brothers is a documentary from director Edgar Wright, a self-acknowledged fan of the band. Wright is careful never to crowd out or overwhelm his subjects, but he also takes advantage of his position as director to indulge his own fannish enthusiasm for the unlikely pop group. The Sparks Brothers is a surprisingly long documentary, running to two hours and twenty minutes. At least part of this is down to the fact that Wright takes great care to ensure that absolutely everybody gets a chance to have their say on what makes this “unusual duo from the seventies” such a monument

The Sparks Brothers is indulgent to a fault, but it’s also enthusiastic and excited. The energy of the assembled panel radiates through the screen, giving the documentary an infectious joie de vivre. The result is perhaps a little overlong and a little hagiological, but it is carried by a genuine sense of overdue celebration.

Oh, brother!

The Sparks Brothers brushes up against a fairly simple problem in tackling its subjects. As one observer summarises early on, the big question for a documentary like this is, “Who the f&!k are these guys?” This is a question with something of a double meaning. Most superficially, Wright is aware of the fact that his name (and his guests) mean that he might attract a large audience with no existing familiarity with Sparks, and so has to actually offer a back story and context for the band.

However, it’s also a deeper existential question that plays into the mystery that the duo have cultivated around themselves. The opening sequence of the documentary finds Russ and Ron answering a series of predictive questions about themselves, while the closing credits are interrupted by the pair deciding that the documentary has revealed too much about themselves, and so making up a set of delightfully absurd “Sparks Facts” to cultivate more mystery around these figures. More seriously, several talking heads who have known the duo for decades concede that Russ and Ron remain mysteries to them.

A light touch.

So The Sparks Brothers is essentially wrestling with two very different interpretations of the same question, effectively “… who are these guys?” and then “… yeah, but who are these guys really?” The nature and structure of the documentary, produced in full cooperation with Ron and Russ who speak relatively candidly on the subjects broached on camera, tends more towards answering the former question rather than the latter. The Spark Brothers occasionally feels like an exhaustive trip through the band’s discography one album (and sometimes one song) at a time.

There is a certain value in this. It recalls the appeal of something like DePalma, the documentary that took a similar trip through the back catalogue of the eponymous director. Wright very cleverly and very consciously structures The Sparks Brothers to be welcoming to those who have never even heard of the band, and offers a surprising amount of detail and a surprising amount of context for the various ways in which the duo’s careers forked and bent over the decades.

Wall-to-wall coverage.

Wright intuitively understands that this sort of detail-heavy approach could easily become exhausting, particularly stretched across a runtime that surpasses two hours. As a result, Wright adds little stylistic flourishes to the storytelling such as (helpfully labelled) “visual puns”, an occasional “recreation” in which the seventy-something Mael brothers play their teenage selves, and delightful animated accompaniments. Wright never overwhelms the audience, never feeling the need to compete with his subjects’ anarchic sensibility. Instead, he delights in playing along and giving the documentary a spring in its set.

There are, of course, limitations to just how much The Sparks Brothers can fit into a single documentary, even with an expanded runtime. The documentary almost speed-runs through the last stretch of the band’s career to catch up to the present, reducing commentary on the group’s nineties and millennial output to a few stray lines here or there. It’s hard to figure out whether this is something of a commentary on the work itself, or simply a function of the documentary’s limited runtime. Still, The Sparks Brothers does a tremendous job distilling fifty years of the band’s history down to a single documentary.

“Beatle maniac.”

However, The Sparks Brothers never feels particularly engaged with the second and more profound question about Sparks. Perhaps this is because there’s so many stories and event to marathon through that there’s no time to dig deeper. Perhaps it’s a function of the duo’s involvement in the documentary, reflecting their own desire to remain inscrutable and anonymous. Perhaps it’s simply a reflection of Wright’s fannish enthusiasm, and a reasonable belief that the pair’s work should be allowed to speak for itself without any external attempt to impose meaning or explanation upon it.

Still, there are moments in The Sparks Brothers that appear to merit deeper reflection than the documentary affords them. Failures and disappointments are acknowledged by the duo, but seldom explored and interrogated. The handful of frustrations that the band experience in their extended career are dismissed in a few clipped sentences that suggest a more candid reckoning is possible. Ron Mael’s fleeting asides on the Mai, the Psychic Girl movie that never happened or on how the band was talked into making Plagiarism hint at stories that might merit being told.

The Wright Angle.

Of course, at least some of this refusal to dwell on failure and disappointment feels true to the spirit of the band. At one point, one of the band members who was summarily fired by the brothers to foster a new sound appears on camera explaining that he respects their artistic integrity in firing him. This is a love letter and a celebration. It never pretends to be anything more or less than that, and that is to the documentary’s credit. Wright even goes so far as to place himself on camera arguing for the band’s legacy and importance.

As such, there’s an appealing and infectious joy to The Sparks Brothers. In an era where fan culture seems increasingly defined by hostility and anger, it is refreshing to see fandom used to create something so giddy. At one point, Ron Mael effectively summarises the band’s core philosophy and indifference to the wider culture, explaining that the pair have a simple guiding principle, “If you don’t like this, we don’t care.” It feels appropriate that The Sparks Brothers remains true to this. Edgar Wright does like this, and Edgar Wright does care. It’s hard to resist that sort of enthusiasm.

3 Responses

  1. I’m by no means a long-time fan of Sparks, but I’ve dived headlong into their catalogue over the past four or five months after seeing Wright rave about them on Twitter, and have loved their stuff. As you say, The Sparks Brothers is very indulgent and clearly an exercise in fannishness, but I really love that it manages to so thoroughly explore this brilliant band who I definitely believe deserve this kind of exposure.
    More importantly, though, it manages to evoke the spirit of Sparks rather than just the raw facts. Part of what appeals to me about their music is that striking combination of genuinely well-crafted songs, and a perpetually grinning and biting sarcasm that belies real moments of pathos. And I think Wright captured that in spades, so I really adored this film.
    And, hell, I went to see it with my own father, who knew next to nothing about the band beforehand. Immediately after leaving the theatre he asked me if their stuff was available on Spotify. I consider that a massive success, and it actually really warmed my heart to know that he could reach that level of interest in Sparks after just two hours. It might sound selfish or boastful of me, but I was weirdly proud that I’d managed to convince him to come along and that he wound up enjoying it just as much as I did.
    So anyway. Sorry to ramble on, but as usual it is in the name, I suppose. Just wanted to offer my own two cents, for whatever it’s worth, from the point of view of someone who’s spent the better part of a year now discovering Sparks.

    • And I definitely agree with your assessment that it’s refreshing to see fandom used for such a pure, joyous purpose.
      Also, as someone who tends to express their interest in topics through lengthy, and admittedly often a tad one-sided, conversations (which you’ve probably gathered by now from my blatherings on about the NAs and such in your Twitter mentions) that are basically infodumps in real life, I freely admit that this might just be one of those movies that appeals to me on a very base level.

    • I was only fleetingly aware of them before the documentary, so I am also something of a convert!

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