Producers: Nira Park, Edgar Wright, George Hencken and Laura Richardson Director: Edgar Wright Cast: Ron Mael, Russell Mael. Edgar Wright, Tony Visconti, Jason Schwartzmann, Jane Wiedlin, Alex Kapranos, Beck, Amy Sherman-Palladino, Dan Palladino, Fred Armisen, Mike Myers, Todd Rundgren, Flea, Katie Puckrik, Thurston Moore, Björk, Andy Bell, April Richardson, Patton Oswalt and Giorgio Moroder Distributor: Focus Features
If you’re a fan of Sparks, the art pop band made up of California-born brothers Ron and Russell Mael, you’ll love Edgar Wright’s documentary about them, which reflects their iconoclastic vision. If not, you’ll probably be a convert by the time it’s over.
On the surface the movie is conventional. The structure is chronological, proceeding from the Maels’ childhood to the present. A substantial portion consists of them reminiscing directly to the camera. There are numerous clips from interviews with admirers and collaborators, many of whom were abruptly replaced as the Maels moved from one stage of development to another but hold no grudges, respecting the duo’s need to progress artistically. Plenty of archival material is sprinkled throughout.
And yet the tone of the film reflects the irreverence and quirkiness that marked the brothers’ work ever since they began making music in the 1960s. The Maels’ remarks have a playful quality that’s sometimes subtly but often ostentatiously jocular, and while the comments of others are unfailingly complimentary, they occasionally veer in a loopy direction. Wright intersperses film clips that might be described as impressionistic rather than directly germane to what’s being said onscreen, as well as bits of animation. And he and the Maels frequently add cheeky visual jokes about what’s being said by someone in a clip or by Wright in his narration, as if to drolly italicize the commonplaces as commonplaces or suggest that compliments are sometimes to be taken with tongue in cheek.
In his film, in other words, Wright is emulating the style and perspective of his subjects. Even its title is ironic, since we’re informed early on that when they were debating a name for their band, they rejected the suggestion of “The Sparks Brothers” as silly.
Even the length of the film has a message. It runs for nearly two-and-a-half hours, which might seem excessive until you remember that the band has continued for half a century, in the process producing some three hundred songs and twenty-five albums in a myriad of genres, although never content to approach any of them without tweaking expectations, and then moving on to something else.
Their look was peculiar, too: Ron was the dreamboat, long-haired vocalist, a potential teen idol but with a tendency to sing falsetto, and accompanied on keyboards by lanky, saturnine Ron (the creative spark, so to speak), whose black moustache could remind people of Chaplin, but more often of Hitler—something that came off as shocking to viewers of an early appearance on British television.
It’s that attitude of being provocative and constantly changing that, throughout the years, limited their mainstream appeal. But they didn’t care, moving on to the next inspiration even though what they were leaving behind might have been the big breakthrough. In the process they became a kind of cult, hugely appreciated by a dedicated fan base, and incredibly influential in the pop music world, but never the mainstream megastars many thought they would—or should—become. Their career became an up-and-down proposition, and they found greater appreciation in Europe than America (many believed they were, in fact, British), but they persevered despite the setbacks, developing a mystique along the way that they send up in their mischievous way.
Of course, the film also offers a solid sampling of their songs via recordings, performance excerpts and music videos. And it genially touches on the Maels’ long-time love of movies (there’s a clip from an early student piece), which, as the debacle of “Rollercoaster” is employed to demonstrate, did not always serve them well. (One hopes that “Annette,” which open this year’s Cannes Festival, and for which they wrote both screenplay and songs, will prove a different story.)
Shot in evocative style by cinematographer by Jake Polonsky and edited with meticulous care by Paul Trewartha, this is an admiring tribute that Wright has fashioned in the Maels’ own idiosyncratic style.