The Sparks Brothers is a straightforward and simply sweet documentary.
The Sparks Brothers (2021) Review By Mark McPherson
Published on June 25, 2021
Rating 4 /5
In the same way that Martin Scorcese takes time away from his narratives to churn out something as insightful as a Bob Dylan documentary, director Edgar Wright also takes a break from his fast-paced filmmaking for a music documentary of a most inspirational band. It may not seem like a Wright film given the favoring of black-and-white talking heads as well as a minor reliance on animation for recreation. But for being a detailed love letter to one of the most fantastic living duo’s of music, The Sparks Brothers is pleasing enough to be more than just a flowery film.
Wright’s assembly of the film is pretty linear in contrast to his usual break-neck editing. He starts the film off the same way most documentaries on musicians begin with praise. Familiar celebrities chime in to stress how important and phenomenal the band was to them, as though you just stumbled into the record store and casually mentioned you never heard of the Sparks Brothers to the biggest fans in the room. Beck speaks with gentle love for the group while Patton Oswalt composes his geeky gushing into elegant poetry. You’ll see a lot of recognizable faces as the film goes on, from Weird Al speaking about how important it is to make funny stuff in music to Neil Gaiman commenting on the narrative of the album covers.
So just who are The Sparks Brothers, aside from their names being Ron Mael and Russell Mael? For a time, they were nobodies. Two brothers who loved composing wild stuff struggled to build up a band with its fair share of failures. It wasn’t until they took their music over to the UK that things turned around. Their first big audience on Top of the Pops gained plenty of attention. Truthfully, they became notable because of Ron donning a mustache that made him look like Hitler. While Russell sang the lyrics, Ron was the quiet one at the keyboard, keeping a mysterious distance as he stared into the camera. It was enough to make even the most seen-everything celebrities jump out of their sofas and call up their friends to tell them, “look, Hitler’s on TV!”
Of course, there was far more to the brothers than their look. Their music was a mix of earnest wonder and grand experimentation. Songs about being betrayed by your lover or the surprisingly subtle lyrics of Tits placed them on the map of bands to keep an eye on. Their many antics also had a tongue-in-cheek angle for how they approached music. They were asked by a producer to compose music that you can dance to and literally wrote the song Music That You Can Dance To, which is a surprisingly apt title. They would later compose more personal tracks, such as the questioning When Do I Get To Sing My Way in reference to when they’d get their chance to sing a Sinatra hit.
Various band members and producers share their tales of what it was like working with the brothers and how it always seemed like they were in a constant state of creation. Through highs and lows, they kept pushing forward, facing every valley of their career with optimism for the next day. Perhaps their lowest point was in the 1990s when they struggled to find a solid production to be attached to. Having only been featured in the lackluster disaster picture Rollercoaster, they had hoped being attached for the soundtrack of a manga-adapted film by Tim Burton would push them back into the spotlight. That plan fell through and it was apparently the first time the brothers felt they were through. Of course, they continued to make more records after such a low point and would eventually go on tour with one of their more daring efforts of covering all their albums at an album a night. For reference, they made over 20 albums.
The Sparks Brothers is a straightforward and simply sweet documentary. The talking heads may seem rather bland with the Wes Anderson style framing and black-and-white favoring but that sort of simplicity keeps Wright’s film on track. There are a few detours of animated reenactments and archival footage but Wright mostly lets the brothers do the talking. And, wow, do they have a lot to say and a wealth of a legacy to divulge upon those discovering their music for the first time.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.