The Sparks Brothers is the type of music documentary that truly surprises viewers, whether you’re aware of the band or not. Despite being around for five decades and still recording and performing, they’re celebrated as a cult act of sorts for those in the know. So, how can one band be successful, underrated, hugely influential, yet commercially overlooked all at the same time?
In his documentary debut, filmmaker Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) brings five decades of invention to life through animations and interviews. Taking viewers on a mood-elevating musical odyssey, the film is inflicted with the unique comical undertones of the two rebel artists/brothers, Ron and Russell Mael, who have released over 25 full-length albums to date.
Growing up in the 60s, the Los Angeles brothers thrived on matinee features and pop music. Their mother was a huge Beatles fan and brought her sons to see the band twice. The film features commentary from celebrity fans including Flea, Beck, Jack Antonoff, Jason Schwartzman, Neil Gaiman, and more. It also includes references to artists who they’ve influenced over the years, like Depeche Mode, New Order, The Smiths, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Bjork, and so many more.
While idolized and influential to many within the music industry, the band never achieved mass commercial success in their home country, or abroad. The fact that the brothers made no effort to fit in with or follow the latest trends only added to the struggles for management and record execs. They would also act out their wildest dreams and ambitions, such as playing multiple nights of shows in the UK, with each evening being dedicated to performing one album from their catalogue in its entirety. The Sparks played Canada a few times over the years, including Toronto’s Massey Hall in 1975 and again in 2013 at Lee’s Palace, which sparked a rather unsavoury review that was published by NOW Magazine for their stripped-down concert.
Some may consider The Sparks Brothers an obscure anomaly, missing their chance at success for not conforming to trends, while others believe them to be leaders in the industry, remaining one step ahead of trends. Either way, they’ve continued to do what they want, when they want. Whether people continue to let them fly under the radar is entirely up to you.
The Sparks are almost impossible to describe, so we’ve included a list of videos to watch as a visual introduction to some of the content covered in this fascinating film:
• The 1974 song, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us,” is what first caught the attention of many unsuspecting listeners, and ignited a few to pursue a career in music.
• While the band first gained notoriety in the UK and other parts of Europe, they still had their eyes on reaching American audiences. They penetrated this market in 1979 with their album, The Number One Song in Heaven, launching their rise to recognition in their home country during the 1980s when they collaborated with music legend Giorgio Moroder.
• The 1982 album, Angst In My Pants, was also a Moroder collaboration, and produced this interesting video of a surreal striptease only the Sparks could pull off.
• The Sparks’ first album was produced by Todd Rundgren, and in a perfect circle of musical genius, the trio have collaborated once again for this new 2021 release.
Distributed domestically by Focus Features with Universal Pictures distributing internationally on June 18.
By Christine Leonard
The Ever Deadly and Bones of Crows composer is finding success staging sounds for the silver screen.