The Sparks Brothers (2021)

I’ve got a snapshot of your Aunt Maureen.

Okay, I don’t, actually. You probably don’t even have an Aunt Maureen. But that line is a real attention-grabber, much like the guys who came up with it, so I figured what the hell. Film criticism is an unsexy business. I’ll take any spice I can get.

Sparks, known by some as the best British band ever to come out of America, seems perennially able to remain interesting without looking like they’re trying to remain interesting. Since their inception in 1971 — that’s 50 years ago, for those who flunked math — the duo have released a whopping 25 studio albums, closing in on 300 original songs. For those who flunked math, that’s, like, a lot.

Comprised of brothers Russell and Ron Mael, their stage presence and obvious visual flair is perhaps as inextricable from Sparks as the actual music. Russell, the singer, fronts the band with hyperactive and often very sweaty antics. Meanwhile Ron, keyboardist and songwriter, sits very still and scowls while his brother goes nuts. Either of the two alone would turn heads, but together they create a contrast that would force a smile on even the most straightlaced of faces.

Capturing the mammoth body of work and chameleonic creativity of Sparks would require the right filmmaker, and Edgar Wright is the right filmmaker. The Sparks Brothers, Wright’s first documentary and his newest film since 2017’s Baby Driver, premiered last night at the Sundance Film Festival. A few films from this virtual festival have made me miss the experience of the actual cinema, but none more so than this one. The Mael Brothers are an absolutely raucous musical force, and it’s laugh-out-loud hilarious to watch Wright gel with that sensibility.

Sure, there are talking heads throughout. And yeah, there’s old footage with “I’ll never forget that moment” reminiscence running overhead. But this is Sparks we’re taking about here, so there are also bits of period-accurate commercials cut into the music videos, cartoon depictions of hysterical encounters, a sort of dreamy sequence concerning Tim Burton ditching the brothers on a project back in the ’80s. Wright himself even appears to fawn over the duo, credited beneath his name as “Fanboy.” As we mentioned in our review of Sundance’s other great music doc Summer of Soul, the subject here is interesting enough to withstand a simple A-to-Z retelling. But who the heck wants a simple A-to-Z retelling?

One of the most endearing aspects of The Sparks Brothers is the frankness of it all, the things Wright chose to leave in. Jason Schwartzman raises the concern that he might not even want to watch this movie once it’s completed, because part of the brilliance of Sparks is in their bottomless mystique. “But I probably will,” he sighs, “because I’m in it.” Neil Gaiman appears to discuss the band’s 1974 album Propaganda, noting the brilliance of the album art (below). On the front, Gaiman explains, the duo have been kidnapped, and it seems that the flipside shows them working together to escape. “I love that it tells a story,” says Gaiman. But Wright interjects off-screen, suggesting that it could be the other way around: maybe the duo worked their way out of their binds only to be tied up again and thrown on a boat. “And that’s why you’re a director,” Gaiman quips.

Moments of human oddity like that, if left to the cutting room floor, might make for a more streamlined experience. But, firstly, again: who wants that? And secondly, The Sparks Brothers doesn’t feel bloated by these instances, not even for a second, due to Wright’s command of pacing and style. Elements that you’d find in a narrative feature crop up here, like recurring motifs and visual representations of verbal recollections. When the brothers recall their hesitation to engage with Hollywood again in the 2000s, a nightmarish flash from the Tim Burton dream sequence comes back to great effect. That type of thing is a shorthand established by the film itself, and it’s likely the only way Wright was able to even come close to capturing 50 years of non-stop creativity in a single documentary.

The Sparks Brothers will almost certainly get picked up quickly for distribution, though I do hope the theatrical experience is a viable option once that happens. This is a fun-as-hell historical roadtrip on any account, but it must be especially so in a crowded cinema. Wright also has another feature due out in 2021, his horror-thriller Last Night in Soho, so it’s shaping up to be a promising year for him. Like the Mael Brothers, Wright’s engaging artistry makes him an easy one to root for because you feel he’s given you insight into something through creativity. As the bassist Flea puts it midway through The Sparks Brothers: “Some bands will give you an outfit to wear…but some bands will give you a needle and thread.”

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