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The Sparks Brothers (A Movie Review)

Updated: Nov 27, 2023


Featuring Ron Mael, Russell Mael, "Weird Al" Yankovic, Beck, Flea, Jonathan Ross, Patton Oswalt, Scott Aukerman, Jason Schwartzman, Tony Visconti, Mike Myers, Giorgio Moroder, Fred Armisen, Neil Gaiman, Earle Mankey, Harley Feinstein, Todd Rundgren, Nick Heyward, Steve Jones, John Hewlett, Christi Haydon, Leslie Bohem, Björk, Alex Kapranos, Stephen Morris, Gillian Gilbert, Vince Clarke, Stevie Nistor, Andy Bell, Lance Robertson, John Taylor, Nick Rhodes, Jane Wiedlin, April Richardson, Amy Sherman-Palladino, Daniel Palladino, Tosh Berman, Pamela Des Barres, Mark Gatiss, Adam Buxton, Jack Antonoff and the voices of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

Narrated by Edwin Wright.

Directed by Edwin Wright.

Distributed by Focus Features. 140 minutes. Rated R.

“Sparks. How did this glam-rock anomaly become a band with a career spanning five decades? How can Ron and Russell Mael be successful, underrated, hugely influential and overlooked, all at the same time? How did two brothers survive in a rock and roll world without killing each other? And where does one even start with 25 studio albums and nearly 500 songs?”

These questions are raised early in The Sparks Brothers by narrator and director Edgar Wright – best known for helming feature films like Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Baby Driver. The queries pretty much sum up the enigma of Sparks.

For decades, the Mael brothers have been critically acclaimed cult darlings, beloved for their musical chops and their unflappable eccentricity, who always appeared to be just on the verge of breaking big – and never quite doing it. In the US, the closest they ever came to having a hit single was reaching #49 on the Billboard charts in 1983 for a bubbly pop song called “Cool Places.” And a good part of the reason that song came that close to catching on was the fact that it was a duet with Jane Wiedlin, from the then-red-hot girl group The Go-Go’s.

A year earlier, Sparks also flirted with having a hit with the angsty post-punk/new wave shouter “I Predict,” which reached #60 on the pop charts. They bubbled under the hot 100 for a couple of other singles in the US – including their first released single, “Wonder Girl,” released way back in 1972 (and they had been recording with other bands for several years prior). However, the band never made much of a ripple in their home country otherwise.

However, they did better at having hit singles in the UK – they were never huge, but they had ten top 40 singles in England in the 1970s and a few more in the 1990s. (Ironically, the 1980s, which was undoubtedly the most productive time for Sparks in the US, was a dead zone of popularity for the band in the UK.)

With all their hits they did reach perhaps their biggest fan – or at least their most influential one. Wright is a well-known film director who was willing to spend his time in making a two-hour-and-twenty-minute tribute to the quirky art and world of Sparks – a band that is not known by more people than it is by those who do.

Is Sparks – a band who never really reached the popularity that they may have deserved – worthy of such a serious deep dive into their history, particularly one that runs almost two and a half hours? Particularly considering the fact that even someone like me – a music nerd who has been aware of the band and kind of followed their career for decades – still probably only knew about a half-dozen of the many songs showcased?

Surprisingly, probably yes. (Although, honestly, the film could have probably been pruned back a little bit as far as time is concerned.) The Mael brothers are a fascinating example of an all-too-rare species; musicians who create art for art’s sake. Musicians who are not willing to pimp themselves out for stardom but instead follow their own off-center muse wherever it takes them. Musicians who tirelessly create even when it sometimes seems that no one is listening, just because it is what they do.

“Weird Al” Yankovic… of all people… makes the surprisingly cogent observation here that bands that use humor in their writing tend to be taken for granted and dismissed as a novelty, even when the work they are creating is just as worthy as the “serious” musicians. Who said that music had to be so serious?

Perhaps the ultimate example of this is Frank Zappa, who may have been deified by the rock press now – years after his death – for the intricacy of his musical craft but was basically overlooked popularly as a comic act most of his career and his lifetime. (It probably doesn’t help that his one real hit single, “Valley Girl,” was a silly novelty song.)

Sparks has had a similar career trajectory – much more intelligent and technically adept artists than they are often given credit for, just because they knew the value of a good joke. And, honestly, the Maels are just so bracingly funny and weird – particularly Ron – that The Sparks Brothers is never less than entertaining.

In director Wright – who like Sparks is sometimes underestimated as an artist because despite all his skills as a filmmaker, he always puts humor first – the band has found the perfect person to chronicle their odd path through a music life. Sparks may never top the charts, but they may still be the number one song in heaven.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved. Posted: June 17, 2021.


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