Now Sparks Can Confuse Fans on the Big Screen

Sparks is a band unlike any other. Ron and Russell Mael — the brothers who have made up the eccentric, unclassifiable duo for more than ...


Sparks is a band unlike any other. Ron and Russell Mael — the brothers who have made up the eccentric, unclassifiable duo for more than 50 years — have played a pivotal, if unheralded, role in multiple musical movements, from glam rock to new wave to synth-pop.

Their witty, hyper-literate songs, along with the singer Russell’s good looks and keyboardist Ron’s deadpan, glowering stage presence, made Sparks icons of a sort in Europe, but never more than a cult band in the United States. With 25 albums to their name, they have often followed up their biggest moments with radical shifts in style that thrilled loyal fans but baffled more casual listeners.

In 2017, the music-obsessed director Edgar Wright, fresh off the success of “Baby Driver,” went to see Sparks perform in Los Angeles. For years, he had been telling his friends that someone needed to make a documentary about the group, and as he looked at the audience, which ranged from teenagers to graying 60-somethings, and the weird mix of celebrities in attendance, he insistently repeated the idea to his friend, the filmmaker Phil Lord — who told him to make the movie himself.

“I thought, if not me, then who would do it?” Wright said in a recent video conversation.

Four years later, “The Sparks Brothers” is reaching theaters, an exhaustive, proudly overstuffed two-hour-20-minute celebration of a group described in the film as “successful, underrated, hugely influential and overlooked at the same time.” In addition to interviews with the enigmatic Maels, Wright conducted 80 interviews, talking with Sparks fans like Beck, Flea, members of Duran Duran, Mike Myers and Neil Gaiman, as well as collaborators and associates.

One theme in the documentary is the Maels’ lifelong interest in film, and their multiple near-misses in trying to bring their music to the big screen, including a proposed collaboration with the French comedian Jacques Tati and a project with Tim Burton. So it’s ironic that just weeks after “The Sparks Brothers” arrives, they have another movie release: “Annette,” a musical written by the Maels, directed by Leos Carax, and starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. The story of a comedian and opera singer who give birth to a daughter with a “unique gift,” it will open the Cannes Film Festival in July.

“Even before we had a band, the merging of music and movies just seemed so perfect,” Ron, 75, said, adding, “To be sitting on a movie set in Brussels and watching Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard singing something you wrote — it’s surreal, way beyond what we expected.” (Carax was unavailable for comment.)

Wright presented his idea to the Maels that night he saw them onstage, but they expressed some trepidation, for the same reasons they had turned down previous offers for a documentary.

“We always say that we don’t like looking back because we think it kind of paralyzes you,” said Russell, 72, encapsulating the constant creative forward motion that has defined the band’s oddly incomparable history. “The proposition of doing a documentary is kind of the opposite of that, and in our minds we thought, is it like an obituary in some sense?”

During a video call, Russell added that the endurance of the Maels’ partnership also seemed potentially problematic. “Sparks’ story isn’t the standard fare of a lot of music documentaries,” he said. “There’s no drug casualties, we don’t have that conflict of other bands with brothers in the band — so are there enough dramatic elements to make it interesting?”

To Wright, on the contrary, their perseverance was exactly the point. “That’s the inspiring part,” he said. “Every other band story is about people squandering their talent, and at a certain point you lose sympathy. The fact that Sparks have lasted so long is partly because they’re always close to success but never mainstream. They’ve managed to exist in this sweet spot where they can keep going, but they never have to sell out.”

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To the surprise of many, the Maels were born not in Britain, but in Southern California, and were even star athletes in high school. They started playing in groups while attending the University of California, Los Angeles, inspired by the spiky spirit of the Who and the Kinks and by French New Wave cinema. Their band, Halfnelson, was championed by Todd Rundgren, but their 1971 debut album flopped. (Closing a circle, Sparks and Rundgren released the new song “Your Fandango” earlier this year.) They moved to England in 1973, after taking on the name Sparks.

That was the start of a crazy roller coaster career (including an appearance in the 1977 disaster movie flop “Rollercoaster”). The dramatic “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” reached No. 2 on the British charts in 1974. After hooking up with pioneering disco producer Giorgio Moroder, “The Number One Song in Heaven” (1979) was not only a huge club record, but also created a blueprint for dance-based electro-pop of acts like the Human League and New Order.

Sparks’ theatrical presentation, from their album covers to their stage production, added to the allure. “What really stuck with me,” Wright said, “is these two performers who were staring down the camera at you, in sharp contrast to a lot of acts who would smile — it was quite unnerving.”

Their most notorious signature is Ron’s mustache, alternately compared with that of Adolf Hitler or Charlie Chaplin. In Paul McCartney’s 1980 music video for “Coming Up,” in which he dresses as an array of rock stars from Buddy Holly to Frank Zappa, he appears behind a keyboard with Ron’s unmistakable scowl and facial hair.

Teaming up with Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s, who was dating Russell at the time, Sparks had a genuine MTV hit in 1983 with “Cool Places.” By the time the lush, pulsing “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’” was the top airplay record of 1994 in Germany, they were being accused of copying the artists they had inspired.

But most of these hits were followed with rapid musical left turns, as if the group was eager to shed any expectations that might come with popular success. In “The Sparks Brothers,” Ron says, “we think it’s important to do something that’s polarizing.”

Sometimes the results are gloriously weird (in “My Baby’s Taking Me Home,” the lyrics consist of the title phrase repeated more than 100 times), and sometimes they’re more confrontational: When a label executive suggested they make an album of music to dance to, they responded with a record titled “Music You Can Dance To” (the label dropped them), and when the idea of a project with the band Franz Ferdinand surfaced, the first song they sent to the other group was called “Collaborations Don’t Work.” (The resulting 2015 album, “FFS,” was a major critical success.)

Both Maels, though, deny that there’s anything willfully destructive in their musical choices. “Within pop music, within three-minute songs, the exciting thing is to see how you can reshape the formula and still come up with something provocative that hasn’t been done,” Russell said. “You’re always searching for that new thing you can impose on the givens of pop music — that’s when the change becomes something exciting, and not just because we want to say we’re chameleons all the time.”

The portrait that emerges in “The Sparks Brothers” is of musicians fully dedicated to their work — even in the years when Sparks didn’t have a record deal, the Maels continued to write and record with almost monastic discipline. “I don’t think it’s especially praiseworthy that even in those periods when things around us were kind of dire, we were working on the music,” Ron said. “There isn’t an alternative; that kind of work ethic is all that there is. At this point, we have an excuse and we could say we’re too old, but that’s a part of our DNA.”

Wright said this example of artistic commitment beyond the pursuit of commercial success is the true intention of the film. “I hope that for people with creative ambitions, the lesson that comes out is to stay true to your beliefs, because really it’s about the persistence of vision,” he said. “Especially in this climate when musicians are having the hardest time they’ve ever had, I hope the documentary shows a way to do it.”

Meanwhile, the Mael brothers have not slowed down. Last year, their album “A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip” became their fourth British Top 10 entry, and they plan to tour the United States, Europe and Japan in early 2022, alongside the release of a new album. They have a “very brash” sequel to “Annette” they will be pitching during the Cannes festival, and still hope to make an animated film of their 2010 radio musical, “The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman.”

The experience of “The Sparks Brothers” has given the perpetually evolving Sparks a different attitude about revisiting their life’s work.

“We’ve always said that we dispose of everything immediately after the moment,” Ron said. “But with this specific representation, we have to admit that perhaps some of those judgments were wrong. This way of presenting our legacy is the one way we want to be remembered.”

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