The Sparks Brothers
2021, NR, 140 min. Directed by Edgar Wright.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., June 18, 2021
When Sparks played Fun Fun Fun (RIP) in 2013, the audience was about one-third music critics, one-third musicians, and one-third British ex pats. Which sorts of sums up their amiable, openly obtuse allure: a band that has defied categorization for five decades and counting.
Who are Sparks? "The best British band ever to come out of America," observes cultural critic Paul Morley. "They don't really look like a band. They look like people who've been let out for the day," counters Jonathan Ross. They, alongside every celebrity talking head in self-described fanboy Edgar Wright's breezy yet epic excursion into siblings Ron and Russ Mael's shared life and back catalog, are both right. Indeed, the more mutually exclusive a set of opinions of the duo one can hold, the healthier for all concerned.
Wright's debut documentary may seem a shift from his long career of modern screwball comedy, but he's almost accidentally perfect, channeling his own obsession with the understatedly quirky band into a pitch-perfect examination of their anti-commercial but eternally beloved career. They are the only band that could do a collaboration with Franz Ferdinand in their sixties and make Franz Ferdinand cooler by association. They are a nonsensical fusion of Steve Reich, Irving Berlin, and Roxy Music that was always 10 minutes early whenever something cool came along. They were (and are) as effortlessly weird as Captain Beefheart, but with a pop sensibility that would make every producer from Tin Pan Alley to modern Nashville weep in envy. They're what Oingo Boingo and Devo tried to pull off, but never could manage, and it's what's kept them on the exact borderline of success for decades, in the same kind of constant remote orbit as Tom Waits: Never big enough to get trapped into a model of success, never small enough to disappear completely, and spotted burning in the firmament (if you know where to look) with a certain regularity. They're a novelty act where the novelty has never worn off. How, Wright says, can you not love that? And, in turn, his access to the genial, jovial siblings makes you love them just as much as their work.
Wright gets to the heart of their (un)success, and it's another of those contradictions: that they've been able to relocate, reinvent, reinvigorate, and cast aside whole lineups and whole eras exactly because they have never changed. They always wanted to make great rock & roll that was truly subversive in its simplicity. They always wanted to collaborate with a great of French absurdist cinema, whether it's Jacques Tati or Leos Carax. It's still Russ, the glam rock pretty boy with the angel voice, and Ron, the tight-laced maniac with his Charlie Chaplin moustache (subject of a whole sequence in its own right). But it's also a charming portrait of an astounding relationship: two brothers who have worked and created together, day in, day out, since they were infants. What Wright makes us understand is that it's never really been that hard to understand Sparks. Plus, "This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us" is a stone-cold classic.