For most of their fans and listeners, a first encounter with Sparks did not result in the assumption that the duo of Ron and Russell Mael were two Californian-born musicians. In fact, at that time, Sparks’ work bore a sound that could suggest many origins, none of which were akin to the pop/rock outfits of the early 1970s coming from the U.S. (“The best British group ever to come out of America!”, as they’re ironically dubbed.) This misleading characteristic is just one of many offbeat traits that have come to define and inform Sparks’ music, which has spanned roughly five decades. And yet, even after releasing 25 albums and recording nearly 500 songs, Sparks remains both simultaneously highly influential and decidedly overlooked, existing in a heavy, hazy halo of mystery and obscurity — “They are a band you can look up on Wikipedia and know nothing.” An avant-pop sibling act — one part charming singer and one part deadpan keyboardist/lyricist/composer with an intimidating stare and a Chaplin mustache — the duo and their work often play out as a sort of public psychodrama, a venerable “part of the ecosystem of music.”
Keeping this in mind, Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers paints a vivid portrait of the Mael brothers, both exploring their musical creativity and opening a window into their psyches in his curtain-pulling study of their lives and career. Wright’s docu-portrait uses an amalgam of formal modes — archival footage of music videos, live and TV performances, talking-head conversations with the duo, their bandmates, collaborators, and successors ( all of whom look directly into the camera, lending a sense of sincerity and playfulness) — but one element is crucial for grasping the essence of Wright’s work in relation with Sparks’ music: Ron and Russell’s oeuvre is tightly interconnected with cinematic aspects (inspired by likes of Ingmar Bergman, Jacques Tati, and Jean-Luc Godard, among many others) and a great dose of energetic humor and witty parody (that even frequently caused their listeners not to take them seriously.) In other words, their work is defined by an overall (and intellectual) friskiness, a quality that they share with Wright and which he here perfectly incorporates into his biography, to the point of mischievously titling his film The Sparks Brothers, a moniker that Ron and Russell always hated to be called.
Through a polyrhythmic structure, and a handful of distinctive visual flourishes — from doodle animations to stop-motion sequences, from photo collage aesthetics to a playful tendency for utilizing lexical intertitles and creative textual identifiers for interviewee — Wright renders The Sparks Brothers’ story, from childhood to present, as a frolicsome, roller-coaster experience and a delightful 140-minute audiovisual adventure where style and the substance are in complete harmony. It’s a film that comes at its subject matter from multiple angles, as it follows the history of the duo’s fraternal artistic collaboration, elucidates their later recognition and cultural resurrection, and, importantly, manages to capture and convey the zeitgeist of different eras and the temporal transition that took place within the music scene over the past half-century. The result is an insightful and singular film, an equal opportunity for viewers who are Sparks’ fanatics and those who don’t know them — after all, no one really does. Crucially, it’s also an exciting cinematic homage to one of the most cinematic musical groups of all-time. It’s only fitting, then, that, in true oddball form, The Sparks Brothers is a documentary and a biopic that viewers can readily dance and stamp their feet to throughout its wild ride.