15 cert, 140 mins. Dir: Edgar Wright
This new film about the enigmatic musical duo Sparks from Edgar Wright, the director of Baby Driver and Shaun of the Dead, is less a documentary than an intensive course of art-pop hypnotherapy: even those who enter the cinema knowing next to nothing about the pair will leave feeling like lifelong enthusiasts.
Lifelong is the only timescale on which the Sparks story can be plotted, since siblings Russell and Ron Mael – one the fey, swanking frontman, one the deadpan keyboard player with the Chaplin moustache and insinuating look – have been recording and performing together continuously since the late Sixties, unbuffeted by changing currents of fashion and taste. The Sparks Brothers isn’t a tale of slow-burn underdog success, though. Rather, it’s a film about a particular strain of creativity that seems to defy all conventional notions of what it means to succeed.
On and off over the past half-century, the Maels’ music has been seismically influential, helping shape the sounds of acts as disparate as Duran Duran, New Order, Beck and Björk. (All of whom feature among the many interviewees Wright has assembled.) Yet they’ve also remained a cultish curio, whose 25 studio albums to date have arguably yielded just one song – their 1974 breakthrough single This Town Ain’t Big Enough For the Both of Us – that managed to seep into the wider public consciousness.
The Sparks brothers are now in their seventies, yet 2021 appears to be a banner year: in addition to Wright’s documentary, they also provided the story and songs for Leos Carax’s exultantly mad rock opera Annette, which opened Cannes last month and arrives in British cinemas in September. It’s hardly Mamma Mia! – another dose of cult success, rather than mainstream exposure, seems to await – but as a committed member of said cult, Wright seems determined to bring in some new blood, and his film is a thrillingly persuasive recruiting tool. For existing fans, it’s a fond and nerdily comprehensive celebration – or perhaps vindication – of the siblings’ extensive, courageously eccentric output.
Structurally speaking, it’s straightforward stuff. Interviewed side by side in graceful black and white, the Maels spin a chronological overview of their career, supported by plentiful clips from the archives and winning animated interludes: a flicker of stop-motion here, a splodge of claymation there, and lots of perky lip-synched doodles throughout. There are some moving accounts of their Californian childhood, and the occasional coy acknowledgement of a love affair, but Wright’s focus remains overwhelmingly on their music.
Except it isn’t just the music. One of Wright’s gifts as a filmmaker is his genius for coupling images to songs that turbo-charge their visual appeal: think of the Shaun of the Dead zombie battle set to Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now, or Brie Larson’s rendition of Black Sheep in Scott Pilgrim Versus the World, or any scene whatsoever in Baby Driver. Over the course of The Sparks Brothers, you’re struck that the Maels might be his music-business equals and opposites: each of their tracks seems to gain a spiritual lift from the bizarre and beautiful imagery with which they’re surrounded.
Tributes are paid to their striking album covers, from the smudged and sassy geishas of 1974’s Kimono My House to the gender-bending wedding snaps of 1982’s Angst in my Pants. But every bit as important are the entrancing televised performances with which the duo seemed to snare every latest batch of fans.
Their inaugural appearance on Top of the Pops in 1974, seen by 15 million, is a classic case: it supposedly prompted John Lennon to telephone Ringo Starr and say “You won’t believe what’s on the television – Marc Bolan is playing a song with Adolf Hitler.” (The performance remains uproarious, and perhaps Wright’s affinity with the band has something to do with this too: it’s remarked a number of times that the duo were often underestimated artistically because they were also extremely funny.) Unfortunately, the Lennon reaction is apocryphal – and unlikely, since he was living in the United States at the time. But there is also a lovely and entirely plausible reminiscence from the actor and writer Mark Gatiss about going to school the following morning and finding the entire classroom furtively abuzz with talk of the performance.
That kind of old-fashioned, proto-viral, quasi-evangelical enthusiasm is exactly what powers Wright’s film along. Every contributor talks as if they’re letting the audience in on a wonderful, inexplicable cosmic secret, and every clip suggests they’re right.
In cinemas now