By Alex McPherson
Whenever Edgar Wright releases a new film, my heart races with anticipation. After such classics as “Shaun of the Dead” and my all-time favorite, “Hot Fuzz,” I had high expectations for his new documentary about the difficult-to-describe pop band known as Sparks. The film, aptly titled “The Sparks Brothers,” isn’t as fine-tuned as his previous efforts, despite Wright’s stylistic touches and the likability of the subjects at its center.
“The Sparks Brothers” chronicles the rickety journey of brothers Ron and Russell Mael — two individuals passionate about staying true to their creative spirit, despite outside pressures. Growing up in Los Angeles with a love of music and French New Wave cinema, Ron and Russell were eager to make a name for themselves by walking paths less taken. As a result, their artistic “genius” — rammed into our heads by a huge group of interviewees, including Flea, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and Neil Gaiman — was often overlooked by record companies, nevertheless influencing a number of successful bands down the road. They have remained steadfast in their desire to create art, frequently layered with social commentary, that never panders to a given audience and remains beautifully unpredictable. Wright’s film, organizing their story by spotlighting specific songs from each of their 25 albums, aims to finally give them the recognition they merit.
An energetic, inspiring, yet overly glowing music documentary, “The Sparks Brothers” feels like a film made by Sparks fans for Sparks fans. Viewers previously unaware of the band, like myself, will likely leave the film with an urge to listen to some Sparks songs and not much else. Sure, perhaps Wright wasn’t aiming to “move” viewers, but when the two-hour mark rolls around, hearing the huge pool of interviewees gush about how much they love Sparks grows tiresome.
“The Sparks Brothers” is, thankfully, a much more self-aware documentary than most others I’ve seen, filled with Wright’s signature quick-cuts and sight gags that usually put a smile on my face. He incorporates archival footage, stop-motion animation, and staged reenactments to visualize anecdotes during Spark’s tumultuous history. For example, to complement discussion of Spark’s beginnings, we see shots of a colorful bird spreading its wings, and shots of doors being shut in people’s faces when they struggle to get signed. These moments don’t necessarily add poignancy to the proceedings, but their charm helps keep the film moving when the runtime threatens to derail my interest.
It doesn’t hurt that Ron and Russell are excellent interview subjects, each with a dry sense of humor that fits perfectly among the characters in Wright’s filmography. Russell, the more traditionally handsome, outgoing one, is effectively contrasted with Ron, who dons an Adolf Hitler/Charlie Chaplin mustache and retains stoic facial expressions. They seem inseparable, sticking together through challenges, even when they dip in popularity and end up abruptly abandoning those they collaborate with. While we don’t get an in-depth look at their personal lives or their songwriting process, their desire to create songs that challenge and entertain is admirable.
Anecdotes about mishaps onstage, their love lives, and unfortunate cinematic involvement are amusing, albeit not especially compelling from an outsider perspective. When specific songs and album covers are discussed, on the other hand, “The Sparks Brothers” is considerably more appealing. The surprising themes of “Tits” and the stylistic subversion of “Kimono My House” are enlightening. I wish “The Sparks Brothers” contained more of this deeper analysis, and spent less time on famous interviewees repeating themselves about how godlike the band is. A tight, 90-minute cut is in there somewhere, but two-hours-and-twenty-minutes is really pushing it. Maybe Wright’s excess matches those of the Mael brothers themselves, though, marking their big-screen treatment with the showmanship they deserve (at least until their new project alongside Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and French director Leos Carax releases later this year).
When the dust has settled, “The Sparks Brothers” feels somewhat superfluous, but remains passably engaging through to the end. Watching the film in two sittings could provide a more satisfying experience, but I’m eager to add Sparks to my playlists, so perhaps that’s good enough.
“The Sparks Brothers” is a 2021 documentary directed by Edgar Wright. It is Rated R for language and runs 2 hours, 15 minutes. Alex’s Grade: B-. The film is in theaters June 18.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.