Edgar Wright's Doc 'The Sparks Brothers' Kicks Off the Year of Sparks
You'll have a new favorite band after watching this delightful documentary.
If you haven't heard of Sparks, a duo of pop wizards otherwise known as the brothers Ron and Russell Mael, this is the year to get acquainted. In 2021, the band will emerge from obscurity to move slightly more into the mainstream, starting with a lovingly crafted documentary by Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Shaun of the Dead filmmaker Edgar Wright and culminating with Annette, a musical film the Maels wrote, which will premiere at Cannes and stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard and is directed by Leos Carax. This year of Sparks is a long time coming for the Maels, who have long flirted with cinematic aspirations, at one point developing projects for Jacques Tati and Tim Burton.
"It's almost vindication in a certain way for Edgar doing a documentary where he chronicled some of those past, unfortunate film ventures that we entered into. And now, not only to have an amazing documentary but to have the feature film musical coming out at the same time, it plays in perfectly to Edgar's general idea that Sparks is alive and, hopefully, better than well now in 2021," Russell says over Zoom last week.
Wright's The Sparks Brothers—which, crucially, is not the name of the band; it's just Sparks—premiered to acclaim at the virtual Sundance Film Festival, and operates as sort of primer into what exactly Sparks' deal is. With a playfulness that resembles Sparks' own lyrics, written by the Hitler/Chaplin mustache-sporting Ron, the documentary charts how the Maels have continuously evolved from their debut in the '70s, inspiring countless other artists yet still somehow flying under the radar. The Sparks Brothers features talking heads, including Flea, Duran Duran, Mike Myers, Jack Antonoff, and Jason Schwartzman, waxing about their love for Sparks while explaining how the band transitioned from glam rockers to pioneers in disco and house, all while remaining wonderfully absurd.
Wright, whose films are known for their carefully curated soundtracks, has been aware of Sparks since he was 5, and over the years has described himself as a Sparks "evangelist." He was at a concert of theirs when his friend, the director-producer Phil Lord, convinced him that he should approach them about a documentary, his first. He did so that very night.
Ron explains that he and Russell were immediately on board. "There have been many other times where we have been approached in various different ways to do a documentary or something chronicling the band and we nixed it," Ron says. "It was partly just our respect for Edgar as a filmmaker and partly just his general enthusiasm." They also liked the fact that Wright wanted to tackle all the eras of Sparks, up through the present, proving that they are not an act relegated to history and are still very productive.
That's why The Sparks Brothers runs over two hours long, though it remains playful throughout. Wright uses animation and clever chyrons to keep the entire experience delightfully cheeky. "To distill Sparks, which is incredibly difficult to do, is that it's incredibly sincere, they are really serious about their craft and they are serious about what they are saying, but that doesn't stop them from having fun with the form," Wright says. "That's exactly how I approached the documentary. I love the subject matter, I love music documentaries, but that's not going to stop me from having fun with the form."
This marks the first of two movies Wright is gearing up to release this year. His other project, Last Night in Soho, a time-traveling horror film, is due out in October. And yet it's appropriate that this is how he kicks off his 2021. The Sparks Brothers is a passion project about passionate people finally getting their due.