Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers opens with a barrage of famous talking heads, among them Mike Myers and members of New Order, singing the praises of Ron and Russell Mael’s long-running cult American pop band Sparks. This opening, complete with a dutiful rundown of the brothers’ childhood in California and early obsession with rock music, gives the impression that this will be a run-of-the-mill rockumentary abundant in vague, hyperbolic words intent on selling viewers on the value of music that can speak for itself. But just as Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan documentaries upend the hidebound rules of the music documentary by stylistically reflecting Dylan’s mercurial spirit, so, too, does The Sparks Brothers embody the idiosyncratic, tongue-in-cheek sensibilities of its subjects.
Wright and the Maels are kindred spirits in their impish sense of humor. The filmmaker lays out his thesis in voiceover over a segment labeled “Visual Puns,” speaking of “shining a light” or “getting a window” into the band’s process as the brothers match his deliberately cliché language by holding up objects like flashlights and mock window frames. And Wright leans into Sparks’s kistchiness throughout the documentary: Papier-mâché maps of America help pinpoint the brothers’ childhood home in California, and cut-out collages crudely animate everything from memories of teenage road trips to the topics of the band’s early songs.
The film regularly intercuts its talking heads and archival clips of the band with images that relate the Maels’ wide-ranging lyrical preoccupations with topics as diverse as repressed sexual urges and French New Wave directors. This breaks up the potential monotony of a series of interviews with free-associative montages that are filled with visual puns that play off of words or phrases uttered by the talking heads. Wright also subtly links ads for new technologies, like handheld radios and televisions, to the ubiquity of pop culture in the post-WWII era in order to place the Maels’ art in the context of their youth. Fascinatingly, the film colors within the lines of the usual documentary template, but at every turn it finds ways to tweak those strict formulas with a puckish sense of play, sending up the very rules it obeys.
Though arranged chronologically, The Sparks Brothers always seems to zig and zag between topics, perhaps in homage to how the Maels have never stayed in one stylistic lane for long, adopting a completely new sound just as it seemed as if they had finally found an aesthetic that translated to pop success. As such, the film avoids getting bogged down in the usual peaks and valleys of tracking commercial fortunes, flattening the brothers’ boom and bust periods into the broader story of their consistent artistic restlessness. And because they’ve changed musical styles like outfits, many collaborators have been left behind over the years, and interviews with former band members and record producers complicate the otherwise glowing testimonials of famous fans with bittersweet recollections from those who accept the Maels’ wandering artistic spirits but regret not being able to stay on the journey with them.
Many films about cult artists are inadvertently condescending, exhibiting a kind of “good for you” attitude toward not-quite stars who only ever find any kind of real success abroad. But Wright celebrates what one talking head terms “the best British group to ever come out of America,” recognizing that the Mael brothers’ enduringly iconoclastic spirit may never prime them for commercial success but that it makes them feel current for the way they’re always forging their own path. Instead of making excuses for the Maels’ middling success on the Billboard charts, the film takes the correct tack of suggesting, politely but firmly, that if Sparks never broke out in their native country, it’s America’s problem and not theirs.