REVIEW: The Sparks Brothers [2021]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 140 minutes
    Release Date: June 18th, 2021 (USA) / July 30th, 2021 (UK)
    Studio: Focus Features / Universal Pictures International
    Director(s): Edgar Wright

They’re the best British band to ever come out of America.

I played a game in my head while watching Edgar Wright‘s equally informative and entertaining deep dive into the joined career of Ron and Russell Mael, The Sparks Brothers. It was called: what decade did I first experience the band my brain has no recollection of ever knowing? Let’s face it. No one who has followed music, movies, pop culture, etc. for the past three-to-four decades can legitimately say they never heard of a group as prolific and groundbreaking as Sparks regardless of reality proving they’ve bucked the mainstream and embraced their “overlooked” status during the entirety of their history. It wasn’t until some early footage of Ron’s deadpan stare while the rest of the band swayed that something clicked. It wasn’t solid, but it was unwitting recognition.

That Wright’s involvement had me assuming like many others that Sparks was a British band despite them being born and raised Californians didn’t bode well for my game bearing fruit beyond that back-of-my-subconscious lightbulb thinking I’ve seen Ron’s schtick (or someone else aping it) before. And it honestly wasn’t until the film reached into the 2010s that there was even a bud on the tree courtesy of Franz Ferdinand and their FFS collaboration with the Mael boys. Did I remember any of the songs? Nope. But I did remember hearing the album. Sparks had infiltrated my life even if it was done covertly on the back of another act. Heck, the film admits that supergroup project exposed them to Latin America too. Them and me. What’s my prize?

Sadness, I guess. Sadness that the joy the Maels have injected into the artistic worlds of music and images (their album covers and music videos are next level) for the past fifty years never touched my soul until today. As one of Wright’s interviewees states, however, neither Sparks nor their fans have ever been the kind of people who chide newcomers for taking too long to jump aboard the bandwagon. They instead don a smile and welcome the innocent babes about to have their minds blown into the club. How great of a sentiment is that? What else do you need to know to understand their longevity? This band is a phenomenon in the purest sense and yet they never let that fact change them. They remained unique.

It’s their greatest strength and weakness. It’s kept them forever outside looking in and yet forever hanging on thanks to an evolutionary trajectory that’s proven they’ve always been at the forefront of seismic changes in the industry. Do they often get accused of ripping off the bands that were actually born from their inspiration? You bet. But those who know, know. And when those who know go on-camera to admit it—see Beck, Jane Wiedlin, Jack Antonoff, Duran Duran, and Björk (with a backhanded inclusion of The Pet Shop Boys via an anecdote that proves they got pissed when someone asked why they’ve never mentioned the Maels as integral to their sound)—their awe and appreciation go a long way. It’s time Ron and Russell got their due.

And Wright appears to be their biggest fan with a keen understanding of the Sparks brand and the perfect collaborative spirit to let their eccentric personalities shine through every single frame (especially those reaction shots that find Ron and/or Russell laughing about something they or someone else said). To see their rapport is to witness a miracle when you think of rock acts composed of siblings sticking together and maintaining success. One can’t help but make the comparison to Oasis when you learn that Ron writes all the music (as Noel Gallagher once did) while Russell sings (as Liam Gallagher once did). Superficially it’s a creative imbalance ripe for the type of explosive fireworks we’ve seen during that band’s dissolution, but the Maels conversely prove a consummate team.

The two being introduced as great guys must help considering how much turnover their backing band has undergone over the years (with some early fractures admittedly earning the label of betrayal). Yet no one (even those who felt blindsided when pushed out once the Maels went “solo”) has a bad word to say about them. All we hear about is their otherworldly work ethic. Their boundless creativity. Their infectious senses of humor. Their inability to be anything other than themselves even if it may risk them going six years without a steady paycheck in pursuit of dreams that stall at the finish line. One ex-bandmate says the Maels live by the creed “art for art’s sake” and thus any move they make (even at his expense) earns respect.

That kind of lovefest can easily wear out its welcome. At almost two-and-a-half hours with tons of footage, new interviews, and wonderful animation, Wright must deftly maneuver through the Sparks journey to ensure we aren’t bored by a constant avalanche of praise. Their career epitomizing “up and down” goes a long way towards adding conflict without Ron or Russell becoming the villain at the other’s expense. The industry and consumers who were always one step behind the Sparks’ genius fill those shoes instead. That way we can become their champions as well. We can thrive knowing the Maels pushed forward without compromise (and no hint of stopping anytime soon). They mocked those who tried changing them and inevitably changed themselves when ready. They’re a one-of-a-kind enigmatic force of nature.

[1] Brothers Russell and Ron Mael from director Edgar Wright’s film THE SPARKS BROTHERS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Jake Polonsky / Focus Features
[2] Archive photo of Ron Mael from director Edgar Wright’s film THE SPARKS BROTHERS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Tony Visconti / Courtesy of Focus Features
[3] Archive photo of Jane Wiedlin and Russell Mael from director Edgar Wright’s film THE SPARKS BROTHERS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Jim Shea / Courtesy of Focus Features

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