The Sparks Brothers [Sundance Film Festival Review]

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Rock documentaries are at their best when the filmmaker knows how to channel the personality or energy of the musical act into something cinematic. Jonathan Demme did it with the Talking Heads performance movie Stop Making Sense, Alison Ellwood did it last year with The Go-Go's, and now Edgar Wright does it with The Sparks Brothers. His mission here is simple: to make the case that Sparks – a band that has never had the success in America that it has in other parts of the world – is one of the all-time greats. Whether you know nothing about them, are only vaguely familiar (as I was), or are a hardcore Sparks-ophile, this dazzling deep dive will make you a believer.

Sparks, at its core, consists of two brothers, Ron and Russell Mael. Their persona is unusual, to say the least. Russell, the singer, has always played the traditional pretty-boy frontman. Ron, the keyboardist and primary songwriter, has slicked-back hair, a Hitler mustache, and more often than not a scowl on his face. In truth, both brothers share an offbeat sense of humor. They intentionally make an odd appearance together.

The movie tracks their childhood, their early days as part of a band called Halfnelson, and their eventual decision to go their own way. There are a lot of details about Sparks that we don't need to go into here. The gist of their story is that they've perpetually been on the verge of breaking out into the mainstream, only to see it fail to happen every single time. There have been random hit songs in various countries, yet never the kind of sustained mass success their contemporaries have enjoyed. Sparks' biggest American hit was "Cool Places," a duet with The Go-Go's Jane Wiedlin that peaked at #49 on the Billboard Hot 100 back in 1983.

Part of the reason for elusive fame is that, over the course of their decades-spanning career, the band has changed its sound multiple times. Rather than trying to keep up with whatever musical flavor is popular at the moment, they march to the beat of a different drummer. The Sparks Brothers takes viewers through these progressions, showing how the Maels were often ahead of their time, as when they recorded a synthesizer-heavy album in 1979 – several years before groups like Eurthymics and Duran Duran made that fashionable. Ron and Russell appear onscreen to wryly comment on the various phases of their career, explaining the choices they made with tongue-in-cheek finesse.

Wright relies on Sparks' many celebrity fans to elucidate on their influence. Weighing in are everyone from the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea, to Bleachers' Jack Antonoff, to “Weird Al” Yankovic. Speaking from a musical perspective, they help viewers understand what Sparks was doing and how it was different, melodically and lyrically, from what others had going on. Through their insights, our comprehension of how iconoclastic they are becomes clear.

Wright gives The Sparks Brothers a quirky, unpredictable style to match the Maels' aesthetic. Multiple forms of animation are used to recreate certain behind-the-scenes moments for which there is no video. The pace is fast, moving us briskly through all the stages of Sparks' career. Interviews are in black-and-white, with sections separated by witty chapter headings inspired by the band's songs. An overall sense of levity hangs over the film, as is fitting with their image.

Because the documentary is simpatico with the group, The Sparks Brothers offers a look at Ron and Russell Mael's career that is both informative and comprehensive. It's also one of the most entertaining rock docs I've ever seen.

Click here to purchase Sparks' music from Amazon.

out of four

The Sparks Brothers is rated R for language. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes.