Sparks, a Musical Curiosity With a Big Following for Half a Century

Sparks, the musical entity invented and fronted by Ron and Russell Mael, is sometimes rock , sometimes pop, sometimes art song, always i...


Sparks, the musical entity invented and fronted by Ron and Russell Mael, is sometimes rock, sometimes pop, sometimes art song, always idiosyncratic. They’re a cult band with an ever-renewing cult and a career that spans 50 years. “The Sparks Brothers,” an energetic documentary directed by Edgar Wright, explains their appeal in part by emphasizing how it cannot be explained.

Sparks’s image is one of contrasts. In the 1970s, the lead singer Russell’s slim physique, bouncy hair and matinee-idol face made him prime rock star “snack” material. Hunched over a keyboard was Ron, the songwriting brother, spindly and pale, whose mustache has been described as uncomfortably poised between Charlie Chaplin’s and Hitler’s. Then there’s what came out of Russell’s mouth — an arch falsetto that might cause a dog to wince, singing ditties about Albert Einstein and breast milk (not in the same song), over precision-tooled guitar riffs and baroque song structures that evoked both Bach and a calliope.

“I thought they didn’t really exist,” the musician Nick Heyward says, recounting his surprise when he saw them on the street. “The Sparks Brothers” humanizes the two, who, despite their Euro-vibe were raised in California. Russell was a high-school quarterback, even. Their adored father, an artist, instilled a love of both film and music in the boys. He died when Ron was 11 and Russell 8.

Wright, the virtuoso director of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Baby Driver,” among others, and an ace soundtrack assembler, is uniquely suited to make this tribute. Both director and band revel in formal play. Their eccentricity doesn’t entirely shut out earnestness.

About sex, the brothers keep relatively mum, although when the subject of Russell’s short-lived romance with his musical collaborator Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s comes up, there’s a bit of mutual humble-bragging by the still-friendly exes. As for drugs, they kept away. Rock ’n’ roll motivated them initially, but it’s something they now have an arm’s-length relationship with, in part because in its purest form it is not entirely hospitable to Sparks’s particular brand of irony.

Does the movie slather on the contemporary celebrity love a little too thickly? Maybe. But even the contributions from arguable wild cards — Jason Schwartzman, Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, Neil Gaiman — are pertinent.

The Sparks Brothers
Rated R, inexplicably. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes. In theaters.

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