If there is one thing that is certain by the end of watching the documentary The Sparks Brothers it is that director Edgar Wright is a big fan of the rock band Sparks. And this documentary is a love letter to the group’s career which spans an unprecedented five decades presenting the group’s story as well as numerous reasons why so many musicians from Beck to Todd Rundgren to the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Flea all respect their output and innovation.
Sparks may have found their biggest success overseas, but they actually hail from southern California. The group consists of brothers Ron (vocals) and Russell (keyboards) Mael and a rotating cast of side musicians. Growing up in the Los Angeles environs in the late 50s/early 60s, the two boys digested a steady diet of movies and rock music that would inform so much of their future musical output.
College led to the formation of their first group and recording a record that was met with only moderate success. A second record would gain a bit more traction with critics and the public, but not quite enough. The Mael brothers would then take a step back, retrench and start again, seemingly always going two steps forward before that inevitable one step back, that brass ring of big success almost always just a hairsbreadth out of reach.
What is amazing about Sparks is how often they happen to be on the forefront of a new musical movement, only to be just a little too ahead of everyone else. By the time other groups have caught up to what Sparks were doing, and made some hits doing so, Sparks have already moved onto following their next musical muse.
Wright keeps the film moving at a good pace. Compressing a five decade long career down to a little over two hours sounds like a tricky task but Wright manages to do it adroitly. Narratively, there isn’t much big drama or conflict to the brothers’ story outside of the occasional creative misfire. Their focus on their music kept them from substance abuse issues or relationship scandals. If anything, the dramatic high point of the film is probably how they spent a number of years developing music for a planned live action film adaptation of the Japanese manga Mai, The Psychic Girl for director Tim Burton which ultimately fell apart.
Wright is a perfect choice to serve as Sparks’ storyteller. A longtime fan, as a director Wright has always demonstrated a keen knowledge of how to meld pop music with cinema. He brings a sense of wit to the film that feels very much his yet also very much in tune with what Sparks brings to their own material. (I guess this is where we can see their influence on him.) At no time is he cornering you at a party to rattle on for two hours about how great his favorite band is. He just lays out their story , plays you some of their music and hopes that you see in them what he does. And with The Sparks Brothers, you may very well do.