The Sparks Brothers
Making his documentary debut, ‘Baby Driver’ director Edgar Wright helms a delightful tribute to the five-decade-old art-pop group that should be everyone’s favourite band.
July 08, 2021
"All I do now is dick around" is an exquisite song lyric and, in Sparks' 2006 single 'Dick Around', it's sung with the operatic enthusiasm it demands. It's also a line that resounds with both humour and truth when uttered by Russell Mael, who, with elder brother Ron, has been crafting art-pop ditties as irreverent and melodic as this wonderful track since 1969. Sparks haven't been dicking around over that lengthy period. They currently have 25 albums to their name, and they've taken on almost every genre of music there is in their highly acerbic fashion. That said, their tunes are clearly the biggest labour of love possible, especially as the enigmatic duo has always lingered outside the mainstream. They've had some chart success, including mid-70s hit 'This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us', Giorgio Moroder collaboration and disco standout 'The Number One Song in Heaven', and the supremely 80s 'Cool Places'. They're beloved by everyone from Beck and 'Weird Al' Yankovic to Jason Schwartzman and Mike Myers, too. They're the band that all your favourite bands, actors and comedians can't get enough of, but they're hardly a household name — and yet, decade after decade, the Maels have kept playing around to make the smart, hilarious and offbeat songs they obviously personally adore.
Everyone else should love Sparks' idiosyncratic earworms as well — and, even for those who've never heard of the band before, that's the outcome after watching The Sparks Brothers. Edgar Wright, one of the group's unabashed super fans, has turned his overflowing affection into an exceptional documentary. It's the Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Baby Driver director's first factual effort, and it's even more charming and delightful than the films he's best known for. That said, it'd be hard to mess up a movie about Sparks, purely given how much material there is to work with. Russell and Ron, the former sporting shaggier hair and the latter donning a pencil-thin moustache rather than the Charlie Chaplin-style top lip he's brandished for much of his career, are also heavenly interviewees. That's the thing about these now-septuagenarian siblings, every Sparks tune they've ever blasted out into the world, and this comprehensive yet always accessible film that's instantly one of 2021's best: they're all joyously, fabulously, eccentrically fun to an infectious and buoyant degree.
There's a joke in this doco's title, in fact; when it came to naming the group after cycling through a few monikers across other projects, they firmly rejected The Sparks Brothers. That's one of the many anecdotes that fill Wright's film — some shared playfully and self-deprecatingly by the Maels, some offered by worshipping aficionados that join the entertaining love-in. There's no escaping the documentary's devoted tone, but again, that attitude is quickly contagious. As the movie steps through Sparks' ups and downs, taking the chronological approach and giving as much time to their lesser-known albums as their cult hits, being as enchanted as Wright just comes with the package. He does an exhaustive job of charting the ebbs, flows, jumps, swerves, successes, disappointments and reinventions that've littered his subjects' careers, even as he leaves viewers wanting even more detail in plenty of instances. Crucially for a feature about musicians that many watching will be unfamiliar with, Wright does just as stellar a job at conveying exactly why Sparks have always deserved far more fame and acclaim, why they're so completely and utterly beloved and obsessed over by everyone who comes across them, and why music, comedy and the intersection of the two will forever owe them a debt.
The audience first meets Russell and Ron today, looking as hip and unconventional as they always have, before The Sparks Brothers jumps back to their Los Angeles childhood, their teen penchant for movies and then everything that's come since. They originally weren't certain if they'd become filmmakers instead — and there's a theatricality to the pair's songs, shows and sublimely off-kilter music videos that speaks to that cinematic fervour. Wright weaves in an abundance of Sparks' gigs and tunes, showcasing both their creativity and their presence. This is a movie with a killer soundtrack, obviously, and it also appreciates the artistry that goes into creating such clever, distinctive and amusing songs that are always one step ahead of the pack. One clear highlight: a live rendition of 'My Baby's Taking Me Home', a tune that repeats that phrase 100-plus times, doesn't include a single other word, and is an emotional tour de force. Another pivotal message: just how hard the Maels have always worked to do what they love, to make such musical pearls and to keep challenging themselves. In 2008, they did 21 shows in London in 21 nights, playing every one of their then 21 albums through in full, for instance.
It's with inescapable melancholy that The Sparks Brothers is also an account of what didn't quite happen; watching it, it's almost impossible to grasp why they haven't been one of the biggest bands in the world for the last half-century. Their 1994 synth-pop track 'When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'', a hit in Germany at the time, manages to be both an anthemic smash and a commentary on what hadn't worked out for them; yes, as Russell's voice echoes and Ron's keyboard skills constantly strike a chord, that's how witty and humorous and just all-round magnificent their music is. 2021 is the year of Sparks, though. Every year since 1969 should've been, but The Sparks Brothers sings their praises with irresistible passion. And, it gives viewers a brief glimpse at their next big project, Annette — the musical that just opened the Cannes Film Festival, is directed by Holy Motors' Leos Carax, stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, and reportedly features the former crooning tunes while getting rather intimate with the latter. The world has always needed more Sparks on a bigger stage; now, to the benefit of everyone that's ever loved them and anyone just discovering them, it's stopped dicking around and is finally delivering.