Who are The Sparks Brothers? Those enigmatic shapeshifting artisans of a very cinematic music. Those rabble-rousing provocateurs of genre trailblazing experimentation. Those strange men, who over five decades proved nothing else if not the vitality of their own longevity, their everlasting intrigue premised upon their uncanny ability not to fit inside normalized boxes. Their presence was a peculiar thing back then, coming on stage with just a keyboardist in a Hitler mustache and a singer with the most flamboyant and far-reaching of falsetto voices. What once defied type now conveys something like a lineage of popular music, as it was to be developed. They are the most influential band, where not enough of the people they’ve influenced have realized it just yet.
Edgar Wright’s documentary hinges on a hyper-cinematic understanding of the band’s principles. The Sparks Brothers, a name derived from the the Marx Brothers by studio executives and blessedly shortened to simply Sparks. This corporate understanding of their work signals an important idea about the attitude of the band: their proximity with the in-joke. Their relationship between artist and audience, born of a foundational history of comedy and improvisation. Within the same understood context of performance, is Edgar Wright’s own input into that history. His documentary, like every good song by the band, is in on the in joke.
There was nothing quite like Sparks. They were brothers from Los Angeles making music that sounded unplaceable. They sounded like the American impression of a British band making American music. They owe it to the fascinations of the moment. In that moment of burgeoning culture globalism, those most peculiar years of the ’60s and ’70s, identifying with art from anywhere else was the thing. Sparks listened to British bands and watched French movies. They were duly moved by the works of Jean Luc-Godard and that most fascinating time of French cinema. Read it in their lyrics: they always wanted to tell cinematic stories in songs; songs that meant several things at once. Songs that told stories that grew larger and more profound the more you unwrapped them.
Nobody knew what to make of Ron and Russell Mael on stage. Ron had the most peculiar visage, sternly scowling down his mustache modeled after Hitler and Chaplin because he thought they were larger than life cartoon characters. There he sat, deadpan and mean-looking but playing the keyboards beautifully. The principle writer of their songs, Ron said everything he needed through the lyrics, and then stared down the audience in sardonic performance art, as his keyboards said the rest. Juxtaposed next to Russell, he seemed all the more strange. Russell bounded across the stage, an endless spring of energy. His overwrought falsetto, a high-wire act of European sounding inflection. The Sparks Brothers captures an exhilarating image. A band that were immediately unreadable and then so radically did the artist thing and changed the sound, that they became unplaceable even to their own fans. Over twenty-five albums, few sound the same.
It takes an expert filmmaker to span such a broad career within a few hours. Edgar Wright is up to the charge. It’s important to consider his technique. This is a documentary that is not always par for the course, but with Edgar Wright, it inevitably is important. Because the edit defines the shape of the thing. The work demands not just a thorough understanding, a long-term investment in an underground band that has always defied conventionality, but the innate ability to tell the story. The story that has always eluded even the members of the band. Critics want you to love Sparks. Sparks may or may not want you to love Sparks. Fans of the band may not even be sure if they always love Sparks. Edgar Wright provides us a means, not only to admire the band, but to understand in depth their processes. This is among the best music documentaries because everyone will leave the documentary not just full of great trivia about an endlessly interesting band, but understanding the outsized influence of their music, and how they fit into the greater history of music history, as a whole.
What Edgar Wright also understands is that the band ought to remain a mystery. By their own framing of the story, because they are the primary subjects of information, the whole thing is bound to be a show-within-a-show. By the end of the documentary, there is a hilarious reveal. The brothers turn the whole thing on its head. After two and a half hours, they question whether what we’ve seen is truly the indefensible document, the all-knowing profile of the band as they were. They are still in on the joke. Edgar Wright is in on the joke. With that knowledge, know that Sparks have found an idealistic pairing, just the right person to tell the story.
The documentary is also vital at painting a portrait of the things that could have been. Sparks as they wanted to be perceived. Sparks as history would have remembered them, if we were all in on the joke much sooner. There is the one massive missed opportunity, the only moment the brothers seem to regret, that Wright gives affectionate attention. Sparks almost made a film with Jaques Tati. Confusion was going to star both brothers. Monsieur Hulot was going to grab a fake gun from a tv station, which happened to be a real gun, and kill himself. Then the brothers would be shipped in from the United States to teach the French television station how television was really made. It would’ve been what the band always pined for: that spark of recognition from a French auteur (preferably this really funny one) that would’ve aligned their interests with the final product of their imagined selves.
What we take away from The Sparks Brothers is both this longing to see the band as they always saw themselves, this way: as worldly patrons of the arts. We also leave the film realizing that this very documentary is that final act. This is the alignment Sparks had always been seeking. They did not star in Jaques Tati’s Confusion, as he met an untimely death in its planning stages, but it was going to be the next Playtime in scope and the form of its execution. Instead, Sparks big movie debut was 1977’s disaster film, Rollercoaster, also a disaster among critics and at the box office. As their career has dictated, the band never got to have the final say on their legacy. After five decades, they still have not had the final say. Edgar Wright has.