In 2021 it’s strange to look back on the days when pop culture truly didn’t travel. I remember going to see Bros: After The Screaming Stops at Fantastic Fest a few years back, and leaving early. As a mockumentary it was arch, but maybe just a little too on the nose, the fractious, pretentious English popstar brothers with the dopey band name who didn’t get along. Only after I left did I discover that Bros was a real band, and After The Screaming Stops was an actual documentary.
Likewise, at the outset of The Sparks Brothers, director Edgar Wright’s new documentary, I was ignorant enough about the subject that you could’ve convinced me that they were a fake band he’d gotten real celebrities like Patton Oswalt and Flea and Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols to gush about as an elaborate troll. At the very least, famous-person-explains-importance-of-band is a familiar enough format to apply it to just about anything, real or fake.
That still seems like a fun idea, but it turns out Sparks, a musical act featuring brothers Ron and Russell Mael, is (are?) very real. The incredible trick Edgar Wright (Baby Driver, The World’s End, Shaun Of The Dead) pulls in his first documentary feature is arguably even more impressive than the troll I’d imagined: he made a two-hour-plus documentary about a band I’d never heard of that by the end left me feeling like a fan.
It’s worth reiterating how difficult a thing this is to pull off. I went into Alex Winter’s Frank Zappa documentary, Zappa, as a Zappa agnostic genuinely wondering why so many people think Frank Zappa is a genius. But after 45 minutes of fans explaining their fandom, Zappa describing his origins, and archival footage of young Zappa hairily waxing nonsensical between songs, I was still no closer to an answer. I shut the thing off for the sake of my sanity. By contrast, Edgar Wright never takes Sparks’ greatness or our knowledge them as a given. Maybe it’s because he’s British — with our inescapable cultural footprint, Americans aren’t used to having to explain our popular culture to outsiders in quite the same way.
It helps that Ron and Russell Mael aren’t easy to explain. A slithery Jagger for a singer (Russell) backed by a scowling wraith with a Hitler mustache straight out of a German expressionist movie playing keyboards (Ron), they’re a band that everyone (everyone that’s actually heard of them, that is) assumes is British, or maybe German. That they’re actually American, from West Los Angeles of all places, and grew up playing high school football and going to the beach is our first taste of their contradictory nature.
Combining period footage, cutesy animation, and contemporary interviews, The Sparks Brothers doesn’t look drastically different than any music documentary you may have seen. If I had to put my finger on why it succeeds where so many iterations of this fail, I’d say it’s that Edgar Wright approaches “this is why this band is important” through the lens of “this is why I love this band” — an important distinction. Wright has a knack for finding just the right snippet of Sparks lore (which is no easy feat drawing from a 40 or 50-year career) to make it contagious, finding universal in the specific. Wright once remembered that I’d called him a “detail-oriented motherf*cker” in a review of one of his movies and I stand by that (and yes, that Edgar Wright remembers lines of reviews you’ve written makes him easy to like, but he also makes very good films).
It helps that Sparks, it seems, are generally up my musical alley. When Flea points out that America is an earnest place, and that Sparks may never have gotten their due partly on account of being too funny, with songs that border on the satirical, I can think of at least four of my own favorite bands to which this also applies. Whereas docs on famous comedians have a way of sucking the comedy out of the performances and encasing them in amber, Wright’s Sparks vignettes, like Russell Mael belting “I’ve got a snapshot of your Aunt Maureen” as the opening line of a song and album, frequently had me laughing out loud. Turns out you didn’t have to be there.
Musically, Sparks’ insanely prolific catalog seems to run the gamut from songs that sound like jangly 60s pop to songs that sound kind of like Queen to ones that sound like Devo and The Pet Shop Boys, always with punny album and song titles — like “Angst In Your Pants” and “Sextown U.S.A.” It’s a refreshing departure from the usual kind of music dorks featured in these kinds of documentaries, where Yngwie Malmsteen shows up to explain the significance of composing a bridge in 6/8 time. Yeah yeah, tell it to the band students, Satriani.
The Sparks Brothers is such a genuine joy from start to finish that it takes its place alongside other legendary music documentaries like Anvil: The Story Of Anvil, Searching For Sugar Man, and A Band Called Death. The one burning question I had that kept echoing around my head as I watched it: why the hell hadn’t I heard of these guys before?