Film Review: The Sparks Brothers

STUDIO: Focus Features | DIRECTOR: Edgar Wright
SPECS: R | 135 min. | Music documentary

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  1/2

“Enigmatic, experimental and tough to characterize” explains the artful pop-rock duo Sparks. And after The Sparks Brothers, a two-hour-plus documentary/love letter to the band, the adjectives still stick. And that’s a good thing.

Edgar Wright, the British helmer of Shaun of the Dead and Baby Driver, directed this epic look at the band who have been around for 50 years and everyone thinks is from England. The fact is that the Mael brothers—Russell, the cute younger one, and Ron, the older, stone cold serious one with the Hitler mustache–are from  Southern California, and the presumptions and mysteries of the duo proceed from there.

Expertly mixing archival forage, Super 8 home movies, live performances and testimonials from an eclectic pool of friends, admirers and fellow musicians, Wright takes an impressive deep dive into the world of Sparks that turns out to be informative and highly entertaining.

Russell and Ron Mael of Sparks

The Brothers Sparks plays like a psychedelic trip through the Mael siblings’ musical existence, yet stops just short of getting up close and personal about their closely held private lives. Wright traces their influences from other forms of media—including French New Wave and Ingmar Bergman films and William Shakespeare–to musical inspirations like producers Giorgio Moroder and Todd Rundgren, who helped them get started by producing their first album in 1971 just as they were about to give up being full-time music makers.

Throughout the film, the Maels’ artistic eye for playful absurdity is connected to the burgeoning art and glitter rock movements of their early years in making records and performing. And Sparks’ gift for keeping their audience guessing is demonstrated by taking in their constant shift from one type of music to another (even after getting a hit single in a particular genre) to dissecting their artful album covers. Also on tap are their oddball, attention-getting appearances on such TV shows as American Bandstand and England’s Top  of the Pops, where Russell shows off his hyperactive stage presence as a scowling Ron plays the keyboards.

Like Steely Dan creative mainstays Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, whose collaborators were always changing, Sparks have kept their own merry-go-round of musicians going around for decades. A few of their former sidemen talk about being part of Sparks, including Go-Go’s guitarist Jane Wiedlin, who even hints at relationship with Russell.

Others who gush when affectionately speaking about the group, include Mike Myers, Patton Oswald, Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols and members of Duran Duran. Even the normally reclusive Rundgren chimes in with his recollections.

This all adds up to Wright hatching an investigative query to unlock the essence of Sparks, succeeding in filling up all of the holes in their story, but still coming up short of solving the mystery. Yet something seems just about Wright with that—and that’s the way, ironically, it should be.

About Irv

Irv Slifkin has been reviewing movies since before he got kicked off of his high school radio station for panning The Towering Inferno in 1974. He has written the books VideoHound’s Groovy Movies: Far-Out Films of the Psychedelic Era and Filmadelphia: A Celebration of a City’s Movies, and has contributed film reportage and reviews to such outlets as Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, Video Business magazine and National Public Radio.