Previously reviewed as part of our Sundance 2021 coverage.
GRAPHIC: An in-depth look at the band Sparks, which is made up of brother Russell and Ron Mael.
REVISION: The first time I saw Sparks it was called in this 1977 disaster movie Roller coaster, which I caught on the wire one day. They looked so outrageous, with Russell’s long loose locks and Ron’s Hitler mustache, that I assumed they were a made-up gang, perhaps the brainchild of a 1970s movie executive. Only after watching it on TCM a few years ago and looking up the movie on Wikipedia did I realize that yes, they are a real band and not just that, a legitimately BIG band. From there I went down into the Sparks den, listening to a ton of their songs on Spotify and it tickled me when I found out that none other than Edgar Wright was making a feature documentary about them.
In fact, Edgar Wright isn’t just a Sparks fan, he’s a Sparks. super fanHe’s in very good company though, as the movie makes clear through talking head interviews with everyone from Patton Oswalt to Flea to Fred Armisen. Although many assume they are British because that is where they are most popular, Russell and Ron are indeed for the California guys who have been active for fifty years and show no sign of slowing down.
Russell is the leader of the band, with him the handsome one who sings all the songs, even if it turns out that Ron, the expressionless one on the keyboards with the toothbrush mustache is possibly the voice of the band, with him writing the songs. They are an intriguing couple, and both are still fat as thieves despite being in their seventies. As the movie shows, they still spend every day working together, and although they lovingly pamper each other, it can be said that brotherly love here is legitimate.
What is super fascinating about their film is their total and utter devotion to their art, without ever having married or having children, as they were too busy pushing the limits with each new album, song and tour. Never explosively popular and always niche, the film traces their careers, with the mid-1970s being the debatable peak when they exploded in the UK with their single “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us”. They endured many commercial failures, but their music had an uncanny ability to predict trends, and they recorded a synthesizer album with Giorgio Moroder long before it became fashionable. Moroder himself says in amazement that “they were making the music of the future,” when they wrote “The No. 1 Song in Heaven,” with the entire album being a cult classic that sounds remarkably modern.
But, Sparks also had the knack of being too pioneering and of early trends, which, along with their resistance to studio interference, put their careers on hold for nearly a decade (when they were asked to make “music with the May you dance “, he literally wrote a song and an album called” Music you can dance to “). They made a comeback in the 1990s and to this day have a huge cult following. They even recently wrote a musical called Annette starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard and directed by Leos Carax (it was supposed to come out this year, but the pandemic delayed it).
Wright’s documentary, although it lasts almost two and a half hours, is a lot of fun and it is hard not to love the Mael brothers, as everyone who worked with them has shown how entrepreneurial they are. Wright probably had enough material for an entire limited series, with certain episodes that he didn’t delve into, like when they wrote the music for a Jean-Claude Van Damme / Tsui Hark flop called Lower, but hopefully, there will be a director’s cut. Hopefully this movie “piques” enough interest in them to take them on another tour, as I’d love to see these guys perform.