They are brothers.

Hello everyone. Mrs Shadowplay here, with a review that should have come out four months ago when Edgar Wright’s THE SPARKS BROTHERS was first released in the UK. But then I kept procrastinating, and procrastinating and procrastinating until it was nearly Halloween. Best get on with it then.

Finally, in the year of our lord, 2021, during a heatwave, Sparks receive received their due after 50+ years of producing innovative, unique pop music. And it’s all due to director Edgar Wright’s fanboy enthusiasm. I can only congratulate him on his good taste. Reading this opening, you’re probably thinking to yourself, ‘This is going to be an entirely biased review isn’t it?’ And I can only reply (telepathically) with a whole-hearted, ‘Yes it is.’

Ever since the Mael Brothers caused a playground sensation with their first mind-bending appearance, or should I say ‘manifestation’, on Top Of The Pops in 1974 with the extraordinary This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us, I’ve been transfixed by their art pop antics. They may have reinvented themselves many times over but they are still essentially Sparks; uncompromising and eternal.

Just to prove that Sparks’ music really is imperishable, I showed this legendary televisual incarnation to a friend in his early twenties and his written response was, ‘Oh my, that track ROCKS!’

I think my young friend would have been shocked if I’d then gone on to tell him that they were kept off the No 1 slot by The Rubettes’ Sugar Baby Love. “I wonder where The Rubettes are now?” muses Russell ‘Cutie-Pie’ Mael. Don’t by fooled by their sweetly oddball demenour, these guys have teeth and claws. Ladies and Gentlemen, here are Sparks’ mortal enemy, The Rubettes. It was falsettos at dawn but ultimately history has proved our boys the winners. (Although maybe I woudn’t have minded so much if it was Mud’s Tiger Feet. I will now defenestrate myself out of shame)

So, who are they? “We are brothers,” they helpfully inform us. They say some more stuff but their mystique remains. “What use is a two hour twenty minute documentary on a band that doesn’t completely penetrate their appeal?” I hear you ask (I wish these entirely fictionalised voices asking me questions would leave me alone). Well, that’s kind of the point of Sparks and the reason that they’ve survived the vicissitudes of time.

“How the hell did THAT come out of the cornfields of Kansas?” said someone who’s name I can’t recall at the moment. He was refering to the unique, luminous Louise Brooks.

A random screengrab of Louise Brooks for you all to enjoy.

The same could be said of Sparks. How the hell did Ron and Russell Mael come out of the sand and surf of California? They seem so European in every way. It’s no surprise that’s where their main fan base has been, most significantly, the UK, where they were dubbed “the best British band ever to come out of America.”

What on earth were these, these…THINGS? They were more like cartoon characters than real people. It’s fitting that Wright frequently resorts to animation to tell the unfolding saga of ther lives. They’re also a bit like superheroes. Ron has the power to stare down the barrel of a lense with such focused intensity that he can levitate objects located on the other side of the screen, and Russell has the supernatural facility to mess with the molecular structure of the human body with the spooky range of his voice. In other words, Sparks can make you float in the air while changing you into a werewolf…If that’s your idea of a good time.

The hyperactive visual style of Wright fits them like a glove. In fact I’d go as far as saying that I can’t think of a better director to wrestle them into a documentary format. The film’s been criticised by some for being too long, but how on earth are you going to do a whistle-stop tour of the life and times of the Mael brothers and not have it run at nearly two and half hours? Yes, it does sometimes feel like a ticking-off of each album in their discography. Yes, you do wonder why Mike Myers and Patton Oswalt are talking heads in it just because they’re fans, but these are such minor quibbles they’re barely worth thinking about.

One slower section really made me sit up, take notice, and unexpectedly moved me. Christi Haydon, a talented designer and performer, who had worked with Sparks in the mid 1990s, bursts into tears when talking about their wilderness years after their film project, Mai The Psychic Girl folded. They were suddenly faced with possible extinction. I use the word ‘extinction’ because Sparks really are like a living, breathing, singing being unto death. Haydon’s response seems entirely genuine and it’s a shocking counterpoint to the joyride that’s gone before.

But Sparks are unstoppable. They were back in 1994 with Gratuitous Sax And Senseless Violins. Many people believed them to be a brand new band, and they were placed in the unusual position of being accused of ripping off the very groups they helped inspire in the first place. I’d be looking at The Pet Shop Boys, then swiftly looking away again and going on my merry way. I’d stop and have a long, friendly chat with Erasure because Vince Clarke and Andy Bell are more than happy to acknowledge Sparks’ influence on them.

This video, directed by Sophie Muller, showcases their interest in film (they each took separate film courses at UCLA). Their music often has bombast and cinematic scope.

And they kept on, writing the opera The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman (2009), in which the Swedish auteur is corrupted by Hollywood, based on their own abortive film experience with Mai The Psychic Girl, until chance encounters led to collaborations with Franz Ferdinand in 2015 (collaboration being something which allegedly doesn’t work) —

and Leos Carax in 2021.

ANNETTE is an opera about a deeply flawed, probably insane male stand-up comic and his strange, singing prodigy of a daughter. This time the Maels are on screenwriting duty (shared with Carax). One of my favourite lines, said just before a huge stadium event involving said prodigy, goes, “Nerves are to be expected. She is, of course, a baby.”

This gives me satisfying David Lynch vibes but is also typically Sparksian, with its elements of absurdist humour and revealing psychological insight. In fact there are many commonalities between The Sparks Brothers and Lynch. Both are American Avant-Garde artists whose roots are firmly planted in Europe. Both, despite being passionately non-conformist, have attained popular acclaim.

Another thing in Sparks’ favour is that they knew how to hit back against mediocrity, with cutting wit, at silly, short sighted decisions by programmers and recording companies. Remember how I told you they had teeth and claws, back in the mists of time of this article? Well, here are some examples of Sparks sharpening them:

During the late 80s, Sparks released a single, but the record company wouldn’t shell out for a video to promote it, so when appearing on a breakfast tv show, Sparks leaped into action with their own form of civil disobedience. This involved them fashioning a tv set out of cardboard and putting Russell’s head inside it to sing the song. This is highly reminiscent of Frank Thornton as The BBC in Richard Lester’s bleakly surreal masterpiece, THE BED SITTING ROOM.

Sparks briefly owned The BBC in 1994.

Luckily, they had allies: Jonathan Ross had Sparks on his show to perform Dick Around after the BBC had banned it from radio air play. The letter of complaint they wrote utilising the phrase ‘dick around’ as many times as humanly possible is wickedly clever and funny. Then again, I may have imagined this response. When I went looking for it online I couldn’t find it anywhere. What I DID find were perfectly reasonable grievances about the Beeb Beeb Ceeb’s decision. Has Ron been using his super powers to implant false memories into my brain? *looks around uneasily*

Again in the 80’s, their record company were at a loss as to what to do with them. They suggested they write “music that you can dance to.” This was the result.

I could hug them. I really could. But I’m afraid of Ron’s uncanny brain powers.

What’s been particularly enlightening and pleasing is reading reviews of this documentary by younger people (I’m 55 so shoot me!). The word ‘inspiration’ keeps coming up over and over again. Sparks never gave up. They never compromised. They were always completely themselves. They evolved but still retained their essential ‘Sparksness.’ They’re a perpetual motion machine animated by music and we should all be very, very grateful.

Gentleman (Edgar Wright), and Lady (Nira Parks), I thank you. It’s been a long time coming. I was grinning like an idiot behind my mask the whole time.

7 Responses to “They are brothers.”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Here’s another setting for “Sugar Baby Love” from “Breakfast on Pluto” — a film that the loathsome Dave Chappelle should be forced to watch STAT. (In it Cillian Murphy gives one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema.)

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Oscar Alexandre Dupont (aka. “Leos Carax”) s one of the most bizarre filmmakers to ever come out of France (though he has U.S. roots as his mother is an American) I first met him back when “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” was released as its star, Juliette Binoche was carrying him around like a “Birkin” They were at that point not yet finished with the shooting of “Les Amants du Pont-Neuf” — a project that took years and frequently ran out of funds. The result was more than worth it — though it signaled the end of the Binoche-Carax love affair (she broke her leg water skiing on the Seine in the climactic scene.

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

    After that came a pair of Herman Melville adaptations: “POLA X” (which sands for “Pierre ou Les Ambiguities — Tenth Draft”) and “Holy Motors” — a rendition of “The Confidence-Man; His Masquerade” with Denis Lavant, Edith Scob and Kylie Minogue

  4. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Carax’s latest, “Annette” is his most curious film. collaboration with Sparks it’s quite lively musically but very unsettling dramatically. Adam Driver (marvelous as always) plays a nasty comedian (see Dave Chapelle) married to a sweet soprano (Marion Cottillard) who he casually neglects than mistreats. The have a daughter, initially represented by a marionette, who sings The finale is extremely bleak — unlike the opening.

  5. Fiona Watson Says:

    Hello David E! I ADORE Cillian Murphy in Breakfast On Pluto. I also loved Holy Motors. Denis Lavant is absolutely extraordinary. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=twcbKbLQUuA

  6. John Seal Says:

    Unpopular opinion: Sugar Baby Love is a better song than anything Sparks ever recorded. Sorry, I just don’t get it, and I’ve been trying for a good forty years!

  7. Fiona Watson Says:

    Hello John. You’re entitled to your opinion. Not everyone ‘gets’ Sparks, but that’s fine. They can be quite polarising. I happen to think they’re geniuses. I loved their collobaration (that DID work) with Franz Ferdinand and I wish they’d get together again. Here’s an example. What d’you think? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=645OkDIkKvg

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