What do you do when you love a band no one else has heard of, and want to shout their virtues from the rooftops? Most of us corner our friends at parties and talk their ear off and frantically send them playlist links. For Edgar Wright, he’ll track them down and make a documentary about them. Lucky for him, one of the most ardent subjects of his love is Sparks, the disco/glam/synth-pop/New Wave/hard rock/alt-pop/everything-in-between group comprised of LA-born brothers Ron and Russell Mael. They’ve been around since the 1970s and influenced bands from New Order to Erasure and beyond, constantly reinventing themselves in the face of commercial failure while still holding true to their idiosyncratic styles and offbeat lyrics.
They’re the greatest band you’ve never heard of, but with The Sparks Brothers, Wright seeks to correct that. Over two and a half joyful hours, Wright channels his kinetic, gleeful, highly musical approach to filmmaking into a breathless, loving chronicle of the brothers Mael and their ups and downs in a music business that never seems to grant them the flowers they deserve. Both Maels are in their seventies, but their music is more vital and interesting than ever. Wright digs into what keeps them so vital, but cheekily helps them keep some of their much-needed mystique.
Sparks’ success and longevity have always defied convention and the whims of the music business, and The Sparks Brothers is no different for the world of film. The film premiered at a virtual Sundance Film Festival earlier this week to rave reviews (including our own), even as we had to watch it from our homes rather than the communal vibes of a packed theater. Even there, though, it’s an absolute love letter between a musically-inclined filmmaker and the cinematically-influenced objects of his affection.
In the week leading up to Sundance, Consequence of Sound sat down with Wright and the brothers Mael to chat about channeling your fanboy love for a band into a documentary, the synthesis of their respective aesthetics, and distilling 50 years (and 25 albums) of music history into a single narrative. Above, you can watch the full interview in video.
On First Discovering Sparks
Wright: My first experience with Sparks was when I was five years old, and I saw them on Top of the Pops — it must have been the 1979 run of singles from No. 1 in Heaven. And aside from the music, I was just struck by them visually, how sort of enigmatic and intimidating they were. The pop acts on Top of the Pops are usually all smiles, so Sparks back to back with something like ABBA is quite striking; they’re all smiles, and Sparks are staring right down the camera at you. It’s a thing that a lot of people in the documentary talk about, this profound moment of watching TV and an act literally reaching out and grabbing you by the lapels.
Then over the next 15 years — this was the pre-Internet age — the band kept coming back into my life. I had a couple of songs from the 1979 era on chart compilations my parents would have. Then as a teenager, I was getting into David Bowie and Roxy Music and Queen and T.Rex, but I would hear other Sparks songs from a different period that were actually earlier, from the mid-70s. I would be pleasantly confused by that; “This is the same band, but they sound different.”
Sparks was quite absent from the UK for the next decade, but then came back with a bang with “When Do I Get to Sing (My Way)”. I was impressed but still confused by it because they’re back, and the same band, but with a different sound. And they look even more handsome; what’s happening? [Laughs.] This is before the Internet, and you would have to go on what you heard and saw on TV, and I don’t remember reading any music magazines. It would just be what was in the library, and what little information you could glean. You had to fill in the dots yourself.
Since 2002 with the release of Lil’ Beethoven, I just became more and more impressed with Sparks, who were defying the trajectory of every other band that had been going that long but continuing to push to greater levels of ambition. At this point, I’m a hardcore fan, and when you’re a Sparks fan, you’re like an evangelist.
It wasn’t like I consciously said, “I want to make a documentary.” It was more the case that I felt making a documentary might be easier than boring my friends at dinner about how they should listen to Sparks, and how they’re the most influential band, and more people should know who they are.
One of my friends, director Phil Lord, called me on it. We went to a Sparks gig together, and I was saying that the only thing that’s stopping Sparks from being as big as they should be is a documentary that could show this whole overview of their career and explain to everybody how they’re always ahead of the curve. How they created all these genres of music that other people went to greater success with. They’re the most influential band to not have a documentary. And Phil said, “You should make that movie.” And I was like, “Okay, I will.” [Laughs.]
After the gig, I saw Ron and Russell, who I’d become friendly with at that point, and I suggested the idea. Once I made that verbal promise, it wasn’t something I could renege on, and here we are in 2021 with the finished film.
The Sparks Brothers
Ron and Russell, what were your initial reactions upon hearing that Edgar wanted to make a documentary about you — especially as folks who, as you say in the doc, aren’t that interested in looking back on the past?
Russell: That was one of our major dilemmas. We do like looking forward, and we were thinking, “Is this going to be, like, an obituary of the band — ‘here’s their legacy and that’s it’?” We had those reservations. And also thinking that our music, at least in our minds, and the image you have of the band, through TV and music videos and album cover artwork, speaks loudly as to what the band is and people can form their own impressions of us. If you unveil more via a documentary, are you going to shattering some of those feelings people have about you in a certain way? Are you giving away too much?
But when we knew it was going to be Edgar Wright doing the documentary, we’re such fans of his work and his sensibility, and we figured there some kind of parallel between what he does in his movies and what Sparks does in our music. Music is such an important element in his films, and we’re very visual at times; even our lyrics are visual lyrics. So the marriage of the two of us had to work really well. So we cast aside any of those initial hesitations, and said, “We have to do this.”
One of the bigger takeaways is how simpatico yours and Edgar’s styles are — he’s a filmmaker very influenced by music, and you’re musicians greatly influenced by cinema. Edgar, how did that help or challenge you, when figuring out the vibe of the documentary?
Wright: I don’t think it was a challenge, it was more like a gift in a way. One of the great things about doing this documentary was that you can see the influences that Ron and Russell have because that’s what interesting to me. It seemed like Sparks wasn’t influenced by anybody; they were just themselves. Then there’s the time period they grew up in — Los Angeles, the iconography, the graphics, the radio, and other little things. There’s a bit in the film where Ron and Russell talk about their dad taking them to double bills at the cinema, but taking them in halfway through the movie, and them having to figure out the rest of the story. That was a major influence on the fractured narrative in their songs.
With that, I’ve got permission, in a way, to make the movie as it maybe would play out in their heads. And obviously, Sparks is such a visual band — beyond the music, which is so evocative and cinematic, the album artwork and the videos and what Ron and Russell looked like on stage is so vivid. It felt like a license to go anywhere and do anything, especially in terms of the use of archive footage and the way we shot the interviews. I shot all the interviews like the Richard Avedon cover of Big Beat, but also used animation — there’s obviously great artwork in their albums. If anything, it was more about opening Pandora’s Box and having fun with it.
Sparks – Big Beat
Russell: And we were also hoping that Edgar wouldn’t be timid in showing us the Edgar aesthetic in the documentary. We were hoping that all of those things you just mentioned, that hodge-podge (in a good way) of these disparate elements, would let Edgar take it over the top, in terms of having his stamp on the film and not watering down his imprint on it.
Ron: A really key thing, I think, was that Edgar did all the interviews with everybody. Aside from the choice of people he interviewed, people who in most cases we had no idea they were Sparks fans, but the manner of his interviews was key to getting these people to speak really casually and in detail. He really put them at ease. So it never feels like people sitting perfectly erect in front of a screen talking about something. It feels like a conversation, which is a really important thing.
Edgar Wright, photo by Heather Kaplan
Edgar, what was it like figuring out the extent to which you were a character in the doc? When you finally arrive in front of the camera, you’re credited as “Edgar Wright, Fanboy,” which is very honest. How much of yourself did you want to put in?
Wright: There were points in the documentary where, because I did all the interviews, you can hear me offscreen laughing in a couple of places. I just felt like those edges, which maybe in a different documentary would be sanded off, made it feel more real. We were having conversations, so I’m interjecting.
In a way I only come into it when I come into it, because I felt that one of the most interesting things about the band is that they accrue different fans at different times in different countries. So you get to see that accumulation of people who were there watching Top of the Pops in 1974, the breakdown of artists who are all watching the same episode of TV when “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For the Both of Us” came on, which was extraordinary. That’s the next generation of artists.
Then I’m watching in 1979, then in LA in the early ’80s when Sparks were on K-ROQ every hour, there’s a whole different bunch of people listening like Scott Aukerman and “Weird” Al Yankovic. It just felt like a natural way to do it — to let the commentators come into it when they join the Sparks fan club.
On Streaming and Struggling To Find New Audiences
The film’s at once an ode to Sparks and an ode to an older form of music appreciation and curation, where we’d find new music on Top of the Pops and record stores. It’s very different now, with Spotify and streaming and the loss of a music monoculture. Sparks, do you feel this new environment is a boon or a hindrance to bands like yours who are carving a niche out for themselves?
Ron: I think it kind of works both ways. I think it’s a boon in the sense that you have immediate access to a large number of people, but then the other side is that there’s so much stuff. I think that’s a hindrance. When it was the case of, say, Top of the Pops, when we’re in the mid-’70s in Britain, there was nothing else to do. So quite literally, a quarter of the country was watching that TV show, where we made our first appearance. There really isn’t that equivalent now, where there’s a concentration of focus of a large group of people on an event in that kind of way.
It’s more difficult just because there’s all kinds of stuff going on that isn’t even of a musical nature, you know — games, streaming films, all those sorts of things. So the competition for attention is much more difficult. But if you can wing through that, then obviously the mass of people you can reach is larger than before.
It’s a double-edged sword: a new fan can start listening to your stuff on Spotify in, like, five seconds, but that doesn’t make you any money. If you appreciate a band, you have to go and buy the album.
Ron: I think sometimes that the difficulty of trying to find music by somebody is something that’s integral to your passion for the band, too. I always kind of loved it, where there was a particular version of a song on the British album for an English band that wasn’t on the American album. The difficulty in getting that was really important to me and made me care about that band more.
Edgar, you’ve been such a fan of theirs for a long time. If there’s a desert-island Sparks album you could bring with you, which one would it be? Mine would probably be A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, which is actually the album I started with.
Wright: See, that’s tough, because the other day, I think we got it down to three…
Russell: I’m changing mine today.
Wright: If you ask us all that question, we could maybe get a bit of breadth. It’s tough, because obviously Kimono, My House is obviously a classic. But I happen to really love Propaganda, which is mind-bogglingly recorded only six months after that. But even those two albums don’t tell the whole story.
The reason I made the documentary is because I heard from people who are music fans who said, “I really want to get into Sparks, but I find their discography a bit daunting.” So in a way, doing this documentary was a way of telling the whole story, with the albums as chapter titles — covering every single one, rather than just going through the hits. Because to me, and I think this is something that is in contrast to maybe some other music documentaries, the downs are as exciting and interesting as the ups.
Some of my favorite stories in the documentary revolve around the lesser-known albums, the ones that are maybe the red-headed stepchildren. I think Ron and Russell were floored by the fact that Flea was all about Introducing… Sparks, probably one of the least well-known albums, which he happens to know by heart.
Russell: You mentioned starting with A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, and that was actually going to be my choice of the album to start with.
Wright: Ron, you have to pick one now as well.
Ron: All right, I’ll go Lil’ Beethoven today.
This movie’s premiering virtually at Sundance this year, and one of the strange tragedies of this past year is that music docs really thrive in a theater, I feel, where you can all enjoy the music together. Edgar, how do you feel about this new format, and how people are taking in your film for the first time?
Wright: Listen, obviously it would be great to be sitting with an audience watching this. Maybe that will still happen in the future, who knows? But we finished the film this year, and we didn’t necessarily know that we were going to get into Sundance. Aside from that, I can’t be disappointed because I’m so proud of this film, and my continuing job is just to be an evangelist for Sparks. I just want people to see it.
I do appreciate that the modus operandi for you was “I need a more succinct way to evangelize Sparks to my friends, so I’ll make a two and a half-hour documentary.”
Wright: Right, I’ll spend three years making a documentary. [Laughs.] But I can say it much better with this film.
Russell: It’s obviously better, the communal thing, the big screen, sitting in an auditorium watching it. But the flip side is that Sundance made it available online to a larger audience than would have seen it at a normal festival. They’ve sold a lot of tickets for it. It’ll just be bizarre for us to be watching on our computer, or whatever, and then thinking that there are all these other people at the same time watching it in real time. And after that, there’ll be the Q&A. It’s a bizarre way to present something, but it’s also making the best of a bad situation in the world right now.