SUNDANCE LONDON ’21: ‘The Sparks Brothers’ Is An In-Depth Tribute To A Band You Probably Don’t Know

Still from The Sparks Brothers. Ron and Russell Mael Stand next to each other, Russell is on the left, looking at Ron who is staring straight into the camera, pouting comedically. They are both holding up window frames with net curtains tied back. The image is black and white.
Russell and Ron Mael. Credit : Courtesy of Focus Features

Billed as a deep dive into your favourite band’s favourite band, Edgar Wright brings his dynamic and musical-infused filmography to the documentary drama for the first time in this loving and occasionally over-long investigation of the history of Sparks.

Russell and Ron Mael present themselves as an enigma. Two brothers, they formed the central and integral pairing of a band that was first established in the late 1960s and is still going – through various forms, members and genre changes – today. Wright decides to tackle this half-century odyssey album by album, starting with ‘Halfnelson’ (an early iteration) in 1971, all the way to their recent collaboration with Leos Carax with the upcoming musical film Annette that premiered in Cannes earlier this month.

With too many talking heads to mention, Wright looks at each album, the production around it, and the cultural impact each one had on both Sparks’ contemporaries and the later generations of bands that grew up steeped in their music – often unknowingly.

While documentary might seem an odd departure for Wright, who is best known for his unique takes on genre films, be it police dramas in Hot Fuzz, zombies in Shaun of the Dead or comic-book films in Scott Pilgrim vs The World, music has often been a central element of his filmmaking process and it is here that this love of music is given the space to be fully investigated. The kinetic nature of his filmmaking isn’t lost within the more conventional documentary elements of archive footage; Wright speeds it up, plays it back in reverse, or intertwines it with stop-motion animation. This eclectic collection of stylistic choices shouldn’t work, it’s jarring nature should get slightly irritating, but it works with Sparks’ own career that has spanned movements, genres, taste and often other bands’ entire careers.

A self-confessed fanboy, Wright occasionally appears in the documentary as a talking head himself, or as a disembodied voice behind the camera asking questions, and it is here that the documentary format begins to drag. There is, it seems, little restraint shown when it comes to the selection of what exactly needs to be included and with a runtime that stretches over to 135 minutes, The Sparks Brothers loses some of its sheen. A less invested eye could perhaps have avoided some of the less interesting footage, or the celebrity talking heads that occasionally feel forced into the narrative with little of interest to say.

Even after that, after a complete rundown of their lives from childhood to now, Ron and Russell are still a mystery at the heart of the Sparks band. And you get the sense that that is exactly how they want it. 

The Sparks Brothers is showing as part of Sundance London 2021, with tickets to be found here.

Rose is a film critic , who graduated from the University of Liverpool with an MRes in Film Studies. She loves thrillers, Al Pacino, and multilingual cinema and she’s not entirely sure if she’s a millennial.

Find her on twitter @rosedymock and find more of her work at https://rosedymock.contently.com

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