Perhaps the biggest criticism of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is the fact that it tends to only induct the hitmakers, not the bands who were the influencers–the less-popular bands whose innovations, sounds and styles served to inspire the bands who went on to dominate the charts, the bands without which your favorite band wouldn’t exist. Talk to any music fan and they will name at least one band who influenced another twenty who has not been recognized because they never had a number one hit. One of these bands who is decidedly not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame but should be is Sparks, a Los Angeles glam rock band born in the early 1970s, massively influential and still creating new and interesting music today, fifty years later. This weird and dynamically genius band who you’ve probably never heard of is the subject of a fun new documentary by acclaimed director Edgar Wright (Baby Driver), The Sparks Brothers, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival.
A traditional documentary in many ways, The Sparks Brothers tells the story of a most untraditional pair of brothers, Russell and Ron Mael, whose mutual love of music would lead them to form their own bands from an early age and continue to stick together through several incarnations of the band that would define them and rocket them to international acclaim, known simply as Sparks. From their first album in 1971, under the name Halfnelson, to their most recent in 2020 as Sparks, the Mael brothers have made over 20 studio albums and influenced hundreds of other artists, many of whom Wright features in the film, including members of Duran Duran, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Franz Ferdinand, the Clash, Depeche Mode and New Order, all of whom profess their unending awe and love for the two men from Southern California who created an indelible musical legacy.
It is a legend that takes its time in building, because the sounds and styles of the Mael brothers was indefinable from the start. With their glam rock roots and their funky, novelty-band, barrier breaking sounds and silly lyrics, Sparks never fit into any mold, so they were forced to create their own, and had to travel the globe to find their audience, which they eventually did, especially in places like Japan and Germany. Never driven by commercialism or success, however, the brothers continued to push the envelope, and as the times changed, so did their music, but they were always one step ahead. The film documents their highs and their lows, their hits and their misses, narrated along the way by their many colleagues and fans, including mega-producer Jack Antonoff, Fred Armisen, Patton Oswalt and Weird Al Yankovic.
Wright confesses to being a fanboy himself, and creates a film that is a loving and entertaining tribute to a band that can conservatively be called alternative, and he generously devotes most of the time in the film to concert and archival footage, journeying through the band’s discography with vibrant sequences, punctuated with visual puns, animation and a sense of humor reflective of the band itself. It’s a feast for the senses, the music pulsating and the performance footage engaging and fun. What is missing, however, despite its long 2 ½ hour run time, is a real sense of Ron and Russell as individuals, beyond their childhood story. There is no reference to their personal lives outside the band, something that we might expect in a story this vast and in-depth. Ron and Russell come off a bit too robotic, and a little coloring in of their stories might have helped form more of an emotional connection. But this is a significantly minor complaint, as the overall experience that Wright creates is one that tells a story of two artists committed to their work, who refuse to answer to anyone or anything but their own creative instincts, enigmas who found a way to thrive in an industry and world that celebrates conformity. A true spark indeed.
This review is from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Image courtesy of Jake Polonsky / Sundance Institute.