VOD film review: The Sparks Brothers
James R | On 23, Oct 2021
Director: Edgar Wright
Cast: Ron Mael, Russel Mael
Your favourite band’s favourite band. That’s how Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers describes its subject, the band Sparks – and the documentary takes that enthusiasm to giddy heights over its its 140-minute runtime.
Simultaneously influential and overlooked, the duo of Ron and Russell Mael still hold the same bewildering, fascinating quality today that they had when they made their debut on Top of the Pops back in the 1970s – a performance of This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us that had viewers talking excitedly about the strange spectacle the morning after. What words were they singing? Why was no one else making songs that sound like that? And was that guy on the keyboards dressed up as Charlie Chaplin or Hitler?
Wright dives into those kind of moments without holding back, recreating the reactions at the time with a who’s-who of talking heads and a wealth of archive footage. At the same time, he takes us back through the band’s five-decade history – and over 50 years, that’s a lot of moments to dive into.
The result plays out like a comprehensive real life answer to Spinal Tap, as the strange-but-true alchemy of a band who could easily be a spoof of themselves repeatedly leaps off the screen with an indefinable, entertaining sincerity. It’s telling that half of the musicians who are interviewed turn out to be future members of the band – and the others are an impressive gaggle of equally awestruck fans, ranging from Flea to Neil Gaiman. Even Wright himself turns up for a knowing interview.
That playful approach seeps through the whole project, with editor Paul Trewartha (the behind-the-scenes doc editor on The World’s End, Baby Driver and more) chopping everything together with a dizzying energy – it’s more fanzine than film, not least thanks to some glorious animation from Joseph Wallace.
It’s all underpinned by some impeccable, in-depth research, which gives us a sense of the band’s arthouse, experimental leanings even as they grapple with the notion of trying to be commercially successful – and also dabble in other media, such as film, including a terrible disaster movie about a killer rollercoaster.
Wright’s passion, though, is so overwhelming that the film ends up a bit too stuffed with trivia – the unwieldy running time could be shorted by 20 minutes without losing the movie’s scope or scale. At the same time, there’s a niggling feeling that the film never really manages to explain who these men are or even how they work – it’s a documentary so dedicated to maintaining their essential mystery that it’s a frustrating as well as fun watch.
The result feels like too much and too little – emphasised by an amusingly self-aware true-or-false segment near the end. That paradox, though, is all too apt for this idiosyncratic double-act. Your favourite band’s favourite band? That would make Sparks the greatest band in the world – and for a few hours after the end credits roll, you really do believe they are.