The Greatest Band You’ve Never Heard Of — The Sparks Brothers
There are basically two elements of a music documentary that determine its quality for me. The first is the story. Tell me stuff I’ve never heard before and would never really know other than by doing independent research. The world of the music industry, particularly from the mid-20th century on, is a fascinating and endless tapestry of unique perspectives and tales of success and failure. Apart from the standard-issue VH1 Behind the Music narrative of initial success, drug abuse, creative discord, and eventual reconciliation, there’s an endless array of new and amazing things to learn.
The second is the music itself. Give me a soundtrack that can enflame the mind and stir the soul. Unless it’s a truly manufactured popstar bio that’s made solely to leach even more cash from teenagers who don’t know better (so-called documentaries about Billie Eilish, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, and One Direction come to mind), you can find some inspiring and instructive songs to aid the story, allowing the audience to feel like they’re experiencing the creative process in real time. Even if you don’t care for a certain genre all that much, if the catalog soundtrack is satisfying, the film will succeed, enhanced by what feels like indirect audience participation.
These are the crucial things needed to make a good music documentary. What a filmmaker does beyond that determines how good it can be. Edgar Wright, the comic genius behind Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Baby Driver (so you know he knows his way around a catalog) goes above and beyond with The Sparks Brothers, an in-depth look at the history and personality of one of the most prolific and influential rock bands of all time, Sparks.
Now, if you’re thinking to yourself, “Who the hell is Sparks?” you’re not alone. Despite 25 albums spanning more than five decades, as well as international stardom, here in their American homeland, they’ve remained largely a cult band with a dedicated following all in on music’s best kept secret. There were times watching the film when I questioned the quality of my own music education — both formal and casual — because I couldn’t remember hearing ANY of these songs before. The only one that seemed vaguely familiar was “All That,” which was just released last year, and was performed by the group via a charity Zoom with other musicians during the pandemic. I thought I might have seen that in passing, but then I realized that it was prominently used in the film’s trailer, which was my sole exposure. How did I not know about these guys for so long?
So already Edgar Wright has cleared the first bar. This duo with a rabid fanbase that includes the elite of rock and pop music was somehow completely foreign to me, so no matter what, I was going to learn something new and exciting. As he shares some 20-plus songs over the course of the film’s run time, spanning an incredible spectrum of styles and artistic directions, Wright also easily clears the second.
For those who don’t know the group, which I’m guessing is a lot of you, Sparks is a pop rock duo consisting of California brothers Ron and Russell Mael. Along with some friends in college, they formed the band Halfneslson, releasing one album under that name. After the record did only modest sales in 1971, the Maels let the rest of the band go and were renamed Sparks. The two continued on from there, adding studio and touring musicians while maintaining themselves as the core. Ron, the elder brother, played keyboards and was in charge of most of the writing, including the lyrics. Russell, the younger, also wrote while serving as lead vocalist.
Always experimenting with new instruments, technology, and musical styles, the band remained eternally ahead of its time. While they definitely had hit songs and albums here and there, they never achieved the mainstream success of their contemporaries, or those who learned from their example. The band’s influence can be heard from the likes of Queen to Kraftwerk to “Weird Al” Yankovic. Russell’s voice evokes the likes of Freddie Mercury or Robin Zander from Cheap Trick. It’s hard to say they got lost in the shuffle because they were apparently the ones who opened up the deck in the first place. As Jack Antonoff (of Bleachers and fun., as well as writing and producing for Taylor Swift and Lorde, among others) opines, “All pop music is just rearranged Sparks.”
There’s a third element to music documentaries that can aid in the enjoyment, though it’s not a base requirement like the other two. It certainly helps here, because that element is fandom, and Edgar Wright is a lifelong fan of the group. His love oozes from just about every frame, especially when you hear his voice from off-screen asking questions and commenting on answers, or when he goes full meta and interviews himself on camera for a couple of bits. When you love something as much as Wright clearly loves Sparks, it opens up myriad possibilities to explore because you’re just that enthusiastic for the subject matter and want the stories to be told. It invites the audience in, because he’s not trying to hoard some treasure we don’t know about. He wants to share it with the world, and that desire to bring others into the club pervades throughout the movie. To play slight Devil’s Advocate, I’d be curious to see a laudatory music documentary from a director that despises a particular performer or style, and if anyone could pull it off, it’d be someone like Wright, but that’s another thought for another time. His joy only enhances the experience here.
It also doesn’t hurt that Wright injects his irreverent sense of humor into the proceedings, which is in keeping with the band’s temperament. As Steve Jones (guitarist for the Sex Pistols and host of “Jonesy’s Jukebox” in Los Angeles, which will hopefully be revived soon after a long furlough and heart surgery) notes, because the band had a sense of humor about their music and lyrics, they were often dismissed as a novelty group rather than serious musicians, which hurt their sales and exposure. But here, that bit of cheek works perfectly in tandem with Wright’s comic sensibilities, giving us a funny and enriching look at the group.
For example, early in the film, there’s an “FAQ” about the band. One question asks if they’re twins, which they are not. The next question is if they’re brothers at all, to which Ron replies, “We are brothers.” The next question is, “How did you two meet?” Ron gives a cock-eyed look before repeating, “We are brothers!” Subtle, but gold! Similarly, Wright plays with the name fonts for the various musicians and celebrities interviewed during the film. When Beck is introduced, it shows his name, and then for his title, it just says, “See Above.” When we talk to John Taylor and Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, each man is independently labeled as a singular “Duran.” I think even Todd Rundgren is at one point just fonted as “God.” This is in addition to several animated sections, both in 2D and stop-motion, including a hypothetical conversation between John Lennon and Ringo Starr, naturally voiced by Wright’s brothers-in-arms, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.
This complements the silliness we see from the group in their footage and output. The closest thing the band apparently ever did to courting controversy was the fact that Ron wore a toothbrush mustache in the 70s and 80s, drawing comparisons to Hitler, which of course he leaned into for comic effect, even though he was going for a Charlie Chaplin look. Some of the songs featured in the film include “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us,” “Amateur Hour,” and what might become my new favorite song ever, “Dick Around.” It’s amazing and beyond fascinating to hear what could easily have been top 10 hits across every decade of modern pop and rock music with lyrics that border on the absurd before you realize their profundity.
Finally, this movie is utterly fascinating because it eschews the trappings of a standard music history story. The Maels never wasted their money or abused drugs to the point of addiction. They never did anything really confrontational (save for “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’” perhaps). They never wound up in the news for getting arrested or damaging property. They embodied rock and roll musically, but not the lifestyle. They’re just two nice guys who were good at making music and just kept doing it, through the commercial ups and downs that came with it. There’s no acrimony from their former bandmates, no litany of lawsuits from disgruntled children. Hell, it appears the worst thing to happen to them was putting a lot of their eggs in the basket of a film collaboration with Tim Burton that fell through, and even that disappointment seems to have worked itself out, as the group have written and produced a film called Annette with French director Leos Carax, which is set to open the Cannes Film Festival next month. This film stands as testament to the idea that nice guys don’t finish last, because they never finish. They just keep going.
I didn’t know what I was expecting when I went in to see this film, but whatever it was, it delivered and then some. It’s wonderful when you can truly learn something new and wonder how you never knew about it before. This movie gave me homework, because now I want to know and hear as much of this group as I can. Over the course of the film, some of the featured songs sounded like masterpieces, while others (particularly the 80s synth age) didn’t quite work for me on a personal level, but that’s okay. It still shows their ability to experiment and evolve, and for that I’m deeply appreciative. Even with your favorite artists and bands, you’re not going to like everything (there are certainly some Green Day songs that I find derivative, even of their own work; and some early Billy Joel that just sounds sophomoric, particularly his penchant for having at least one song named after a person on nearly every album), but the more you learn, the more you figure out the process and the motivation, and that can at least put it in perspective for you.
Edgar Wright litters his film with the type of people — comedians, actors, musicians, producers — that have the credibility to tell you that if you don’t know who Sparks is, you’ve been missing out. Once you hear the music, you’ll realize they’re 100% right. If you’re a fan of rock and pop music, you will find something in their catalog that piques your interest just watching this film. I know it did for me, and now I want to learn so much more. Honestly, if Wright ever wanted to do a follow-up movie about the new fans he’s converted with this one, I’d volunteer.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s the most important part of a music documentary to you? Did you know about Sparks before seeing this movie, and if so, what’s your favorite song or album of theirs? Let me know!