‘The Sparks Brothers’ review: Edgar Wright’s revealing deep dive into odd-pop’s LA pioneers

The careers of Ron and Russell Mael are lovingly dissected in an exhaustive documentary

Los Angeles odd-pop pioneers Sparks are best known in the UK for their biggest British hit, ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us’, which peaked at number two in the charts while missing out in America completely. With his enlightening new doc, director Edgar Wright hopes to prove that Russell and Ron Mael’s influence stretches far beyond the reach of that catchy 1974 single.

Wright builds a compelling case for his chosen subject with some entertaining recreation scenes – which are animated in a variety of arresting styles – plus a vast archive of TV and concert clips. For documentary filmmaking, access is everything – and Wright has done a great job in assembling interesting, enthusiastic contributors with something worthwhile to say. Shot in crisp black-and-white, and delivered direct to camera, each soundbite offers a classy counterbalance to the band’s often-eccentric music.

Importantly, Ron and Russell are great talkers, telling juicy tales about their unconventional lives, while a host of former and present collaborators line up to chat. It’s an A-list affair, from actor Jason Schwartzman to Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos to Flea from Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Elsewhere, New Order, Duran Duran and The Human League were hugely influenced by Sparks and they pay tribute to their work, particularly the before-its-time synth sizzler ‘No. 1 in Heaven’. That 1979 album was produced by disco master Giorgio Moroder and yielded stone-cold party classics such as ‘Tryouts for the Human Race’.

Unrelenting cheerfulness would be monotonous and several downbeat moments are included. The brothers speak movingly of their father’s death when Russell was eight and Ron 11, while there’s a sad story about a six-year period of work that came to nothing. In the late ’80s, the pair began working with director Tim Burton on a manga project but Burton backed out, leaving the two brothers sad to have missed out their big Hollywood break. The affair enjoyed a belated happy ending, however. Russell and Ron have written Annette, French director Leos Carax’s new musical starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, set for release this year.

At 140 minutes, and with a cast-list of more than 80, you could almost argue that The Sparks Brothers is too exhaustive – but for a band whose fans are as committed as Sparks’, there’s unlikely to be too many complaints. Still, less is often more when it comes to moviemaking.

For the most part, though, Wright – who appears on-screen briefly with the caption “fanboy” – has brought the infectious fun of his films (Shaun of the DeadHot FuzzBaby Driver) to the job. You can even hear his laughter in some of the interviews and it’s likely most viewers will feel similarly joyful after watching.

Details

  • Director: Edgar Wright
  • Starring: Beck, Flea, Jason Schwartzman and more
  • Release date: TBC (NME attended a screening of The Sparks Brothers at Sundance Film Festival 2021)
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