They Finally Get To Sing “My Way”: The Sparks Brothers (2021) Reviewed


Image: Focus Features

“You don’t say ‘Oh, I was there all along, and where were you?’ – you say ‘Welcome aboard, and here’s more!’” – [Gary Stewart, head of A&R and Rhino Records]

Thus is the spirit of the new Edgar Wright documentary from Focus Features, The Sparks Brothers, a wildly inventive, intimate look at the fifty-year career of the Mael brothers. With input from a wide range of sources, including most prominently Ron and Russell Mael themselves and those who have made up their band throughout the years, it explores the far-arching and still very much relevant influences of Sparks and its music, taking a typically Mael combination of tongue-in-cheek levity and genteel vulnerability to approach the story. At two hours and twenty minutes, it is not a quick watch – but its level of detail, its canny wit, and its use of divergent media make it such a delightful one that it hardly matters.

Interviews with Sparks personnel, fans, and followers are interspersed with animated segments, archival film footage, live concert segments, and quilted narrative segues that feel straight out of Behind the Music in its heyday to create a film tribute as layered, ponderous, and marvelous as Sparks itself. Much of the story comes straight from Ron and Russell, in snapshots from their daily lives, past tours, and studio footage. The obvious affection and reverence each brother has for the other and for their partnership through five decades of making music is palpable and quietly triumphant – this is a celebration of all that Sparks is and has been, and will continue to be as they move forward into the next chapter of their career. (Given modern medical technology, they’re hoping to add two or three hundred more Sparks albums to their already exhaustive collection.)

Ron and Russell Mael
Image: Focus Features

Irreverent, quirky, and always themselves no matter how many times they reinvent the wheel, Sparks – at its heart, “cutie pie” younger brother Russell, who serves as vocalist and showman provocateur and intelligent, sardonic older brother Ron, the lyricist and stoic keyboardist – have been composing and performing since 1967. They have seen and rejected every trend in music since, crafting their madcap canon with the love of melodic auteurs. Even now, as they finish work on the upcoming Leos Carax film Annette – for which they provide both score and screenplay – they dive deep into their prolific talents, continuing to inspire countless artists the world over.  

More than eighty individuals were interviewed to craft this documentary, a diverse panel of players in the continued story of Sparks from comedians and authors to musicians and producers. Their reputation as “your favorite band’s favorite band” is illustrated in discussions of their influence, from synthpop pioneers like Duran Duran and Erasure to authors and comedians like Neil Gaiman and Patton Oswalt. Their legacy has touched every genre, their music running the gamut from crooner-style to disco, electronic pop to symphonic cinematic concept album and everything in between. Ron’s layered, introspective lyrics often laced with entendre and underlying darkness, coupled with Russell’s crystal-bright voice and flamboyantly festive frontman presence build a strange and fascinating dichotomy that works – precisely because it’s so weird, outlandish, and unexpected. 

Image: Focus Features

Wright’s documentary rejoices in the fantastic, long-lived and uncorrupted weirdness of Sparks, and the ride is a sheer joy – because it is so wonderfully apparent that Wright himself is a total, and thus infectious, Sparks fan-boy. The Maels are the definitive stars, but the documentary uses their constant presence throughout the shifting zeitgeist to pull its audience in, too: Even if the viewer has never even heard of Ron and Russell Mael, they will leave the film with a desire to know everything there is to know about them, and it guides them with open arms toward discovery. For those who have known and loved Sparks for years, there are charming anecdotes and intimate, emotional personal narratives from the perspectives of those who were there. Delighting in the mystique, they never quite pull the curtain back completely – but that, too, is part of the fun.

It is difficult to fathom how a pair of unusually bonded brothers from California can have laid impact in so many ways and for so many years, and how a band that has been creating for decades can still somehow feel like an underground cult artist, despite having released literally hundreds of songs. Edgar Wright, with both the respect and enthusiasm due this incredibly noteworthy band, rolls with the absurdity of it all, and the result is a truly significant documentary that is a genuine meal for Mael fans of all stages. 

--Dana Culling