Film review: ‘THE SPARK BROTHERS’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

The documentary The Sparks Brothers attempts to address the enigma that is the band Sparks.  Was their music art rock, pop, new wave or electronica?  Why did lead songwriter and keyboardist Ron Mael have a toothbrush moustache reminiscent of a certain 20th century dictator?  For a band that has been around for 50 years, created at least 300 songs, had chart multiple periods of chart success mix with long stretches of obscurity, it would be an optimistic filmgoer expecting clear answers.  Still, the film has a decent stab at a comprehensive examination of their highly unusual career, their constantly mutating music, the massive influence they’ve had on so many bands, their bizarre sense of humour, thankfully, the moustache and above all the unique and powerful bond between its two key members, brothers Ron and Russell Mael.

Mixing file footage of tv appearances with oddball visual inserts and extensive interviews with other musicians including Beck, Alex Kapranos from Franz Ferdinand, Jane Wiedlin from the Go Go’s, Todd Rundgren, Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols and Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth, this slightly long film provides plenty of pieces in the Sparks puzzle without giving us the full picture.

Ignored by press and public with their first few albums the Mael brothers, operating under the moniker Half Nelson, changed their name to Sparks after a music exec suggested ‘The Sparks Brothers’ as a play on The Marx Brothers.  After relocating to England where their music and general sensibility seemed more at home, the band gained critical acclaim and some degree of commercial success with their early 70’s albums ‘Kimono my House’ and ‘Propaganda’.  They even encountered teeny-bopper adoration due to Russel Mael’s Mark Bolanesque good looks before they suddenly fell out of favour.  This would be the pattern for next 50 years as they rode brief waves of adulation followed by premature pronouncements of their demise.

Astonishingly, though, the brothers are still making music together and realising long-cherished projects such as working on film scores; Ron Mael is a huge fan of French new wave cinema and one of their aborted projects was a collaboration with director Jacques Tati in the 70’s.

One surprising aspect of their career for people like myself who have only ever had a passing interest in or knowledge of their music is that they were hugely influential on new romantic electropop outfits like Duran Duran, Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode as well as post-punk electronic outfits like New Order.  Sparks 1979 album ‘No.1 in Heaven’ sounds like something from the mid 80’s, which is a mixed blessing.

While director Edgar Wright doesn’t attempt to sum up their music although he does, thankfully, provide a clear overview of their discography, something alot of music documentaries fail to do.  Whether or not the multitude of tunes on this film’s soundtrack will completely convert non-believers is debatable but given the breadth of styles the band has traversed, it’s likely any viewer would find at least something to their liking.

By the end of the film’s 141 minutes, it’s still unclear whether the celebrity interviewees’ fascination have with Sparks is primarily due to admiration for their remarkable longevity and resilience, amusement at their oddball persona or genuine respect for their musical talents but it would appear director Edgar Wright and the band prefer this remain a mystery.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2

Genre: Documentary.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Edgar Wright.

Release date: 24th June 2021.

Running time: 141 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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