Director Edgar Wright has given the world such great films as Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Baby Driver, and now he’s out with a love letter to the pop duo Sparks. The Sparks Brothers documentary looks to tackle how the duo of brothers Ron and Russell Mael came to be simultaneously successful, underrated, hugely influential and overlooked. A huge fan of Sparks himself, Wright goes in-depth on how the act that got its start as the art-rock band Halfnelson would transform into the enigmatic duo that would go on to influence all of your favourite electro-pop artists.
Touted as “the best British band to come out of America,” the documentary also questions why the duo is so beloved in the UK. After initially failing to set the United States on fire, Sparks tried their luck across the pond and suddenly gained momentum. British audiences immediately fell in love with Ron and Russell’s clever humour that permeates everything that they do, from their witty lyrics to their irreverent stage performances to their wacky interviews. Their first performance on the British television institution Top of the Tops was a viral sensation before going viral was a thing, with viewers drawing unfortunate comparisons between Ron and Adolf Hitler. Pandemonium would eventually ensue in the UK with rabid fans following Ron and Russell around as they would venture to radio and promotional appearances, storming the stage as the band performed.
The Sparks Brothers highlights the ingredients that also made Sparks truly something special; their tongue-in-cheek album covers, subversive innuendo, playing with gender norms, and adapting their sound to change with the times. Their eighth album, 1979’s No. 1 in Heaven, saw them work with famed euro disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder and resulted in the signature hits “The Number One Song in Heaven” and “Beat the Clock,” With those songs, you can hear the direct influence of that period of Sparks on acts like Erasure, Duran Duran, Pet Shop Boys, New Order, Heaven 17, etc. Appearances from Beck, Jane Wieldin, Jack Antonoff, Flea, John Taylor, Nick Rhodes, John Oliver, Mike Myers and many more throughout The Sparks Brothers further demonstrate the impact Sparks had on both their peers and the next generation of musicians and entertainers.
What stood out the most to me during The Sparks Brothers was Ron and Russell’s determination and resilience and how they continued to reinvent themselves and keep trucking despite the various highs and lows and starts and stops throughout their career, going from a quirky ’70s glam outfit to a disappointing appearance in the 1977 film Rollercoaster to bouncing back and becoming ’80s synthpop new wavers to their turn as a dance club act in 1994 and so on. Sparks is an act that was and continues to be ahead of their time. Gary Stewart, head of A&R for Rhino Records and another of the many Sparks devotees that appear in the doc, says it best: “It hurt Sparks that they came of age at a time when people could only take things at face value.” Despite that, Sparks’ cult following continues to grow, as evidenced by the glowing critical reception to the 2021 musical drama that they wrote Annette, a darling of this year’s film festival circuit.
The Sparks Brothers is available now to purchase on Blu-Ray and can be rented/streamed via Amazon Prime, iTunes, and Google Play. It is also available on Crave to subscribers.