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Sundance 2021 ‘The Sparks Brothers’ Review: An Electric Tribute to Musical Experimentation

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
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“Are you brothers?” “We are brothers.”
“How did you first meet?” “We are brothers.”

In his documentary debut, filmmaker Edgar Wright hurls such questions at deadpan siblings Ron & Russell Mael, the duo behind the pop band Sparks. The result, simply titled The Sparks Brothers, attempts to capture and explain the magic behind Sparks’ pop stardom, but comes off like one of your cool older friends trying to show you something that they like, hoping you’ll share in their awe.

Wright’s love for music and boundless enthusiasm is palpable in every frame, as the opening sequence features delightful singing narration of the credits. The documentary is mostly a dual biography of the Mael brothers; as the two of them narrate their story of growing up in southern California, listening to surf songs and pop music, we see archival footage of surfers, radio operators, soul groups, and dancing audiences. The approach is bold and inventive, as would be expected from Wright, and there are plenty of visual gags. Yet the brothers are always the stars of the show.

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

We begin with their early days and the formation of their first band Halfnelson in 1967; after Halfnelson does not take off, there is a montage of films of failed flights and planes crashing and burning. But the two brothers take those flames and rise from the ashes as Sparks. To Wright’s credit, he does not let his own fandom and interests get in the way of the brothers speaking for themselves, and showing firsthand why they were so charismatic to listeners and viewers. The two of them are performers through and through, absolutely magnetic to audiences throughout the decades. Russell is the cute lead singer with big hair and a big stage presence, while Ron is the darker, more cerebral brother, with stony scowls and wispy Hitler mustache behind the keyboard. 

The problem is, Wright never finds a cohesive visual approach to stick with – there are cutout collage-style videos, animated sequences, and a million different styles of artwork peppered in with Wright’s signature rapid editing. It can feel a little cluttered and unfocused, especially when paired with the grab-bag of talking heads, as everyone from Neil Gaiman to Mark Gattiss to Beck to other celebrities plucked haphazardly from their various mansions are put in front of the camera to talk about why they love Sparks. But the seemingly endlessly varied approach reflects the spirit of experimentation that Sparks embodied, never sticking to one sound or style for too long, and always trying to push the boundaries of the possible.

Admittedly I had never heard of the band before this, and felt the 2.5-hour run time was a bit long, but this managed to be pretty fun, and filled with enough visual styles to make a thousand movies. Wright clearly loves music and has a blast playing around with these guys, and viewers will likely enjoy the big risks onstage and the big hair. The film may feel slow in stretches, and does not quite earn its 2.5-hour runtime, but it’s nothing if not exhaustively comprehensive in its interviews, history lessons, and explanations of what makes music move us. It might be more information than you need, but The Sparks Brothers will certainly leave most viewers checking out some Sparks earworms or returning to their records anew.

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

 

This is a story about experimentation and risk-taking, and lives up to that endeavor. Sparks are a “rock band with a point of view” who want to convey a sense of joy, they say, and are perfectly happy with not fitting into any standard boxes for what musicians should look or sound like. Ron doesn’t fit any of the typical rock band roles, and has a strange and magnetic presence in his schtick, mimicking a cartoon character in his exaggerated mustache and rigid stage persona. Even Weird Al is a major fan, and celebrates Sparks’ immense sense of humor with their witty lyrics and unorthodox and eccentric pop sensibilities.

Wright shows the enduring influence they have had on other artists that imitated or co-opted their vibe, and captures the enigma of his subjects without overly idolizing them. All in all, The Sparks Brothers is a worthwhile celebration of the titular band, showcasing their work in all its weird glory. If you already know and love them, you’ll get a kick out of this doc that lets them be their unabashed selves. And if you don’t yet, you’re in for a treat. 

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