You wish your favorite band would get the treatment that Edgar Wright gives to Sparks, an American band via Britain, who have 25 albums under their belt but not much fame. Influence is their trade and Wright makes it crystal clear why you should care about this band. I may not have known more than a few albums of theirs going in but I left feeling some of the enthusiasm for the band that so many have.
Wright, best known for Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs the World, is no stranger to using music in clever and visually punchy ways. He brings that energy to his first documentary. Siblings Ron and Russell Mael form the backbone of Sparks. They are humorous, clever musicians who routinely change their sound. Wright traces their career album by album. The format gets a bit repetitive but it is exhaustive, leaving no stone unturned. That being said, the Mael brothers are exactly forthcoming about what makes them tick.
Sparks have flirted with mainstream popularity, particularly after they moved to Britain. They worked with Giorgio Moroder early on, helping to shape the sound of synth-pop and influencing an entire decade of bands in the 80s. This came after the glam rock era in which they found their most success. Currently, they wrote Annette, their first musical directed by Leos Carax and starring Adam Driver. They are proof a band never has to reach the charts in order to stay viable. It is remarkable to see their five-decade run.
Their influence ranges from Weird Al to Erasure to Beck, all who appear here to sing their praises. Wright cleverly uses stop-motion animation and a variety of visual techniques to keep the film moving along. While The Sparks Brothers runs long, over two hours, it never feels long thanks to the kinetic editing.
If the film has a shortcoming, it is in the way it never dispels the aloof nature of the brothers at the center of it. Russell Mael made waves with his Chaplin/Hitler mustache when he appeared on BBC's Top of the Pops and Dick Clark's American Bandstand. They routinely play with their own image and yet we don't get a lot of explanation as to why. Honestly, this isn't really necessary with a band like Sparks. Part of the fun of the band is to see what they will do next.
Wright sidesteps most of the clichés of the rock doc. There isn't the traditional rise and fall, no scandals or drug issues. The movie is instead a celebration of their music and of a band that played by their own rules every step of the way.
Wright’s film sidesteps most clichés because Sparks has never been huge or endured steep falls. There are no scandalous hookups or problems with drugs that put the integrity of the band in jeopardy. The whole movie is about their music, and it’s more than enough. The marriage of director to subject here is what works the best. Wright clearly is a super-fan and his love for Sparks is infectious.