I am not a music person. I love music and listen to it all the time, but I doubt I can tell you much about any particular band beyond, "I like the way they sound." This is my way of telling you this until I saw it Edgar Wrightdocumentary The Sparks BrothersI had no awareness of the band Sparks or had heard their music beyond their hit single "This City Isn't Big Enough For The Two Of Us". And yet, instead of judging ignorant people like me, The Sparks Brothers constantly invites us to take the audience by the hand instead of punishing us for lack of knowledge. Focusing solely on the music, Wright not only traces the band's growing and falling popularity, but also successfully argues that their enduring power is to follow their artistic integrity rather than trying to chase trends or make hits. With his unmistakable humor and warm-hearted instinct, Wright manages to hide new followers at The Sparks Brothers instead of just preaching to converts.
With a career spanning five decades and 25 albums, Sparks started out as Halfnelson, but the studio felt they could do more with a re-release and rebranding, so they created The Sparks Brothers as a piece for The Marx Brothers and the core duo on – brothers Ron and Russell Mael– Compromised with "sparks". But that compromise is one of the few times they would ever make such a concession, as Wright shows by recording all of their albums and the way those albums have been welcomed, as well as their current legacy. The consistent theme that runs through all of Sparks' work is that they're usually ahead of the curve, the right band at the wrong time, and that they've managed to stay productive and exciting because they care more about music interested in who they want to make rather than guessing what might be popular.
When you see Wright portray Sparks – as a mix of music and visuals with a sassy sense of humor – you can see the kinship he feels towards them. You can also understand why most artists adore this type of band who managed to get their work done on the job, rather than how many platinum albums they put out. Most mainstream entertainment is based on the “one for her, one for me” model at best, and so Sparks simply avoids mainstream success. They make the music they want to make and then try to see where the audience might be, even if the audience is in the UK (to the point where people assumed those were born and raised in America Maels were British artists) or anywhere else in Europe than the States.
To Wright's great merit, this 140-minute love letter never feels arrogant thanks to a skilful blend of animation and charming talking heads (with the occasional joke descriptor) that one likes to refer to Jason Schwartzman as "Talia Shire's son") and the fact that Ron and Russell Mael are incredibly lovable, even with their dry sense of humor. You get the feeling that while they take their work seriously, they don't really take themselves seriously, and that the story here isn't about their personal lives (The Sparks Brothers talks about Ron and Russell's youth, but once the band starts, Don't expect a drama “Behind the Music” but about their devotion to their art, a poppy documentary about pop musicians who really didn't come due because they are so difficult to categorize, and their relative indifference to them commercial success.
The Maels' approach to creativity, which a speaking head calls "creative recklessness," is incredibly inspiring and uplifting because it shows that true artists don't create because they want to be famous or rich, but because they have to. You have to create something to interest yourself. If this attracts a following, that's great, but the creative impulse is greater. Even if you're not into Sparks' music (which would be surprising since they've caused so many bangers), you can respect what they do and how Wright shows that respect. Sparks' leanings have not always made them legions of fans, and they have ridden through some supportive band members over the years, but they have stayed true to their music and that purity of sight is rare and worth supporting.
The Sparks Brothers is the rare musical documentary that is all about music. Other groups may offer more conspicuous personal details and internecine conflicts, but The Sparks Brothers focus on the music in such a way that all personal details fall by the wayside. For someone like me who has always learned more about music and music history, Wright's documentary is a treasure that I've always been eager to find out about the next album in the band's discography. I still may not be able to speak intelligently about music, but at least I'm happy to have a new band whose music I want more of. If you look at the history of Sparks they will be there to deliver it.
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About the author
(14814 articles published)
Matt Goldberg has been an editor at Collider since 2007. As the site's chief film critic, he has written hundreds of reviews and covered major film festivals such as the Toronto International Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and their dog Jack.
By Matt Goldberg