Unpopular an opinion it may be, it is hard to figure out what exactly it is about pop duo Sparks that engages with an audience. The Sparks Brothers, the first documentary feature from director Edgar Wright, hopes to understand that appeal. He allows many musically gifted celebrities to opine about the glory days of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, each a part of Sparks. As passionate fan Wright puts it, his intention here is to discuss and dissect the revolutionary impact this “glam rock anomaly” had on the world of sound. Few musicians have influenced a whole generation of music, let alone multiple. But how did Sparks do it? Wright demands to know, and so, hopefully, does his audience.
Sparks were purposefully mysterious. Their music? Not so much. That shroud of odd culture that surrounds them is torn apart by The Sparks Brothers, and Wright knows it. The duo knows it too. There is a realisation within the documentary early on. We can either learn nothing or know everything. That puts it all to a standstill. Which direction should we turn? For many, the allure of not knowing all that much about Sparks trumps the music itself. Now, that mystery is lost. Even to those who do not watch with glee, the notion that someone has picked apart their discography leaves a sour taste. Even the interviewees are on the edge of their seats. “I don’t want to know much about them,” is the reply Jason Schwartzman gives in his opening interview. Nor do many fans.
With odd hits like Lawnmower, it is clear to see that Sparks is a duo who have cemented themselves as innovators of culture, rather than club cannon fodder. Their influence on the sound and style around them is remarkable, and Wright does an exceptional job of bringing that into the fold of what is, essentially, an invigorating and invested look at Sparks’ decades’ long history of music-making. Little of your personal preference for Sparks will depend on your enjoyment of the documentary. The Sparks Brothers uses the usual, faux wistfulness of black and white interviews with famous faces. Five decades of work, trickling down into a two-hour documentary, depicting not just the professional impact, but how Ron and Russell Mael have worked together without letting the ego go to their heads or their relationship. Wright adapts his feature style and love of comedy to The Sparks Brothers, and it does not settle quite that well, with “painting a picture of the band” in narration featured with a visual representation of, quite literally, painting a picture. Groan inducing stuff, but thankfully it doesn’t detract or distract from the bulk of useful information.
A pair so anomalous and mysterious are bound to have their highs and lows, but as artists it appears their influence on the culture around them is far stronger than the music, they themselves produced and created. 345 songs, a couple of them rather good, and Wright walks us through a great chunk of that history with awe, professionalism and emotional attachment to a group he, like many, appreciates. But how far can we throw the appreciation for such an artist? Do we wish to learn all that much about the music Beck listens to? An accomplished, group understanding of Sparks is presented from artists who admire them, not because they provided consistently great songs, but because they were the only duo who could blend pop credibility with odd, influence-pushing iconography. That much is a talent in itself, but Wright never quite dives into just how deep that influence goes. Never beyond “these famous faces listen to them,” anyway.