The Sparks Brothers (2021) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Going their way together

Edgar Wright’s music documentary film “The Sparks Brothers” looks broadly over the long, illustrious career of Ron and Russel Mael, two musician brothers who have been steadily active in their pop and rock band Sparks. To be frank with you, I never heard of them or their band albums before coming across their acclaimed musical film “Annette” (2021), but, as far as I can see from the documentary, they are pretty interesting figures to observe besides being very talented musicians who have firmly stuck to artistic vision and integrity fo years, and the documentary works well as a sweet and playful tribute to their enduring career still moving on even at this point.

At first, the documentary gives us a relatively conventional opening part detailing the early years of the Mael brothers in California during the 1950s. As their artistic talents were nurtured by their loving parents, they were also exposed to the rapid changes in American pop music via the rebellious rise of rock and rock music, and it can be said that those constantly defiant and challenging artistic choices of their band were influenced a lot by this dramatic cultural shift in the American modern society.

When they eventually formed their band together in the late 1960s, things did not look that promising to them to say the least, but then there came what can be regarded as their first major breakthrough via a music producer named Todd Rundgren, who has a rather amusing story about how he happened to get involved with the Mael brothers. Thanks to a young woman who had an on-and-off relationship with not only Rundgren but also Russel during that time, Russel and Ron came to have a chance to record their first official album in 1971, and the resulting album drew some attention although it was not as successful as Rundgren and the Mael brothers hoped.

Not long after their first album, Russel and Ron changed their band name to Sparks, and the situation gradually got better for them as they continued to work as before. When they subsequently got an offer from Britain in 1973, they accepted the offer because they thought they needed a fresh new start for their career, and, what do you know, they soon found themselves appearing as a new hot band to be introduced on TV.

Despite having the first taste of major success in UK, Russel and Ron did not want to follow the expectations from their fans and record producers around them, and, not so surprisingly, that consequently led to their eventual return to LA in 1976. As trying to search for another turning point for their career, they actually appeared as themselves in a forgotten disaster flick named “Rollercoaster” (1977), and they are not so willing to talk much about the movie itself, though they were enthusiastic about being in front of the camera because of their lifelong interest in movies (As a matter of fact, they could actually have worked with Jacques Tati(!)).

Fortunately for Ron and Russel, another turning point for them did come as they were about to enter the 1980s. In 1979, they luckily got an opportunity to work with none other than Giorgio Moroder, and their resulting album put Sparks back on the track thanks to its considerable commercial success. As they went further with their electronic music, Ron and Russel also tried many different things via a number of MTV music videos, and that certainly boosted the idiosyncratic image of their band.

However, the Mael brothers eventually let themselves become less popular again while adamantly sticking to their artistic vision and integrity as usual, and they had a particularly hard time during the 1990s. While their artistic career seemed to be stuck in a dead end, their precious movie project, which initially drew some interest from Tim Burton, was unfortunately collapsed later after Burton suddenly left the project, and, as they frankly admit in front of the camera, that was really a painful personal blow to them.

Nevertheless, Ron and Russel not only endured but also prevailed in the end. As they entered the 2000s, Sparks began to enjoy a new wave of interest, and they even came to have a sort of marathon concert event where they and other musicians had to perform each of their albums one by one during more than 20 days. In the 2010s, they and their band became more admired than before, and that was how they came to collaborate with French director Leos Carax in “Annette”, which was developed from their musical screenplay. It is a bit shame that the documentary did not show much of “Annette” because the documentary happened to come out not long before “Annette” was released in last year, but I can attest to you that “Annette” is one of more interesting films of last year, and you should really check it out for appreciating more of the undeniable talent of the Mael brothers.

For his documentary, Wright gathered a various bunch of interviewees ranging from Flea of Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers and “Weird Al” Yankovic to Jason Schwartzman and Patton Oswalt, and he skillfully mixes the interview clips into a kaleidoscopic collage of grainy archival footage and witty animation. As the center of the documentary, the Mael brothers is constantly compelling in their straightforward frankness coupled with eccentric playfulness, and I will not deny that I was amused to observe how Ron’s funny little mustache, which was frequently compared to Hitler’s or Chaplin’s, came to look more like John Waters’ over passing years.

In conclusion, “The Sparks Brothers” is another interesting music documentary of last year, and Wright, who happened to disappoint me a bit in his latest feature film “Last Night in Soho” (2021), presents the distinctive personality and artistry of his two human subjects well with loving care and admiration. After enjoying the documentary a lot, I began to consider checking out some of the Mael brothers’ works besides “Annette”, and I guess that is a start for me.

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