There are many advantages to being an acclaimed and creative director like Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World). You can pick your projects and pen your own scripts, you have your choice of big name actors, and the pay is nice. But an underrated perk? Free rein when it comes to music documentaries.
Martin Scorsese has been the most notable auteur to take advantage of this with both concert films (The Band's The Last Waltz) and more traditional documentaries about Bob Dylan and George Harrison.
But rather than document the career of legendary rock stars, Wright has flexed his creative muscle to craft a love letter to a band you've probably never heard: Sparks.
And that's sort of the point.
The Sparks Brothers is Wright's somewhat exhaustive (coming in at 2 hours and 20 minutes) and somewhat convincing argument that Sparks belongs in the rock pantheon.
Without giving away the film's beats, here's the SparkNotes on Sparks: The California brother duo of Ronnie and Russell Mael have been making music since 1967. Russell is the pretty boy singer, Ron serves as the songwriter, lyricist, and keyboardist. Also, Ron sports a rather iconic Charlie Chaplin-esque mustache. The band has put out 25 albums and gone through an unbelievable array of sonic changes: pop rock, dance pop, hard rock, electronic rock (all the way back in the '70s), and a thousand other shades. All the while having a distinct comedic element that's made them both stand out and kept them from consistent success. Sparks has been a European chart-topper and L.A.'s hottest band, but also irrelevant and back and gone again more times than seems possible. Basically, they're a fun-loving pop rock cockroach that seems unkillable.
To help prove his Sparks case, Wright uses a load of creative storytelling aids and rolls out an all-star cast to gush about the group: Beck, Flea, Duran Duran, New Order, Depeche Mode, Thurston Moore, and loads more. Heck, even Weird Al and Patton Oswalt show up. Along the way the talking heads shower praise on Sparks ranging from calling them one of the most influential groups ever to "the best British group to ever come out of America" to "they would make really good Muppets."
The brothers Mael are compelling enough to keep audiences unfamiliar with Sparks invested in Wright's film. Ron in particular is captivating. The clips of him sternly side-eyeing the camera during TV performances never seem to get old even as one is bombarded with them. There's a natural subtle but undeniable comedic charisma that he possesses as Sparks' chief creative force.
Wright does his best to make Sparks' story feel like an absolute blast. The group prides itself on top-notch art direction, so the archival footage from TV performances, music videos, tours and just hanging around sings, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. There's a positively delightful bevy of wildly different animation styles to illustrate sequences described where no footage exists: claymation, collage stop animation, drawn doodles, and more. It helps bring Wright's comedic touch to the project, as does his hilariously literal archival footage usage. At times he pulls NASA launch footage when someone's talking about Sparks taking off, a diver belly flopping when chatting about an unsuccessful record, or showing New Year's Rocking Eve broadcast footage again and again to show the passage of time. When discussing some of the biggest Sparks songs – like "Slowboat" or "Girl from Germany" – the director will place a text card with a dictionary definition of "boat" or "German girl." The comedic touches are so amusing you might miss Wright's biggest direction choice: All the talking head interviews are presented in a grayish black and white, making the actual footage of Sparks' career seem ever the more vibrant, colorful and fun.
But for a movie about such an out-there group and imbued with so many creative touches, it also ends up being a startlingly clinical presentation. It's an entirely chronological telling of the Mael bros story, from youth to band formation to all 25 albums in order. While it makes things easy to follow, the Sparks journey is so long that the commitment to a straightforward timeline almost feels oppressively mundane.
Wright effectively builds a mystique around the band while also highlighting the unwavering creative integrity and working-man ethos that has kept them afloat for six decades. But in keeping the band's mystique alive — and covering its timeline so exhaustively — there's never space for an emotional connection to be forged. At one point an interviewee says, "[Sparks] were a band you could look up on Wikipedia and know nothing." That weirdly can describe The Sparks Brothers, too. By the end, viewers could ace a test on the band's arc, but still know almost nothing about them as people. It's a shockingly careerist film. Everything viewed through the lens of the band, so we never get to know Ron and Russell on any sort of human level. No personal lives. No emotional highs or lows. No darkness, no light. Just this album was great and this record was a flop (repeating this over and over and over with an ironically Wikipedia-like rhythm). For a film that serves as Wright's love letter to Sparks, the ingredient it's lacking most is somehow heart.
Its shortcomings may hold it back from successfully vaulting Sparks to rock and roll immortality, but the journey's still fun. The Sparks Brothers throws viewers in the deep waters of an unheralded creative force of a band. And seeing that their guests are already drenched, Wright and Sparks decide to throw a pool party. ♦