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Monday, October 18, 2021

Rate and review: ‘The Sparks Brothers’ tells the enigmatic tale of the world’s most influential yet overlooked band

Edgar Wright’s documentary debut takes audiences on a one of a kind musical journey

With a seemingly never-ending list of special guest stars, “The Sparks Brothers” gathers the most unlikely celebrities to showcase Ron and Russell Mael’s otherworldly 50-year career as the band Sparks. (Courtesy to The Alligator)
With a seemingly never-ending list of special guest stars, “The Sparks Brothers” gathers the most unlikely celebrities to showcase Ron and Russell Mael’s otherworldly 50-year career as the band Sparks. (Courtesy to The Alligator)

If you don’t know who Sparks are, musical luminaries like Duran Duran, “Weird Al” Yankovic and Sonic Youth are here to tell you.

With a seemingly never-ending list of special guest stars, “The Sparks Brothers” gathers the most unlikely celebrities to showcase Ron and Russell Mael’s otherworldly 50-year career as the band Sparks. In this captivating, hilarious and sentimental documentary, director Edgar Wright chronicles the history of a band with an inescapable legacy and a creative drive like no other.

“The Sparks Brothers” had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 30, and its North American theatrical release on June 18. The film grossed $265,000 during Father’s Day weekend, playing on 534 screens across the United States, according to Deadline

Currently, “The Sparks Brothers” has averaged a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes from 106 critic reviews. On June 23, Sparks announced the film was selected to play at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles on February 8, 2022.

Known for directing the films “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and “Shaun of the Dead,” Wright’s notability as a director is nothing new. But his documentary debut “The Sparks Brothers” takes his cinematic storytelling to a whole new level.

Gracefully coursing through half a century and 25 albums, the film celebrates Sparks’ persistent and effortless reinvention of their musical style and image. Though formed in Los Angeles, the band was never a mainstream success in the U.S., and Sparks’ eccentric appearance and British-rock influence led many to believe the two brothers weren’t American at all. 

On the day of the film’s U.S. theatrical release, Screen Rant published an interview with Wright on “The Sparks Brothers,” where he said he first came across Sparks when he was only 5 years old. Wright also mentioned he had no documentary aspirations prior to meeting Ron and Russell in 2015.

“I felt like they were a conundrum to me for a long time,” Wright said. "The idea of telling their story was exciting."

Alongside his use of nostalgic photos, home movies and tour footage, Wright adds old-timey reaction clips, cartoon characters and claymation visuals to the film’s media variety. This sea of paradoxical elements creates an atmosphere entirely its own, something not only necessary but perfectly fitting for a story about a band so eclectically monumental. 

Wright’s documentary emphasizes one of the most perplexing aspects about the band: despite landing four albums on the UK’s Top 10 Charts, selling out concerts internationally and being an influence to countless artists today, Sparks seems to embody everything a legendary band is without the popularity of one. 

Thus, the question on everyone’s mind in the film appears to be, “Why doesn’t the whole world know about Sparks?”

“The Sparks Brothers” does a great job of not only asking this question didactically but also of artistically demonstrating just how a band can manage to be perpetually ahead of its time for years on end.

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The documentary opens with a series of big-name appearances like Jack Antonoff, Jason Schwartzman, Beck and Mike Myers sharing comments and personal anecdotes about their experiences with Sparks’ music. 

From “glam rock anomaly” to “otherworldly,” the descriptions of Sparks make it clear to the audience the band is anything but conventional.

The film unfolds chronologically, beginning with Ron and Russell detailing childhood memories that laid the foundation for their music career. The brothers recall being raised in the Pacific Palisades, watching western and war films with their father, seeing The Beatles perform live twice and attending the University of California, Los Angeles as defining moments for their love of music and performing.

Once the film enters the years of Sparks' inception, it glides through the band’s breakthrough moments and rough patches throughout the decades, exhibiting Sparks’ unwavering determination and love for creating. Like the band, “The Sparks Brothers” never lets up on surprising and mesmerizing its audience. 

The true beauty of “The Sparks Brothers” lies in its remarkable conciseness. Wright possesses the magnificent attribute of being able to take such a multiplex and historical band as Sparks and crunch their entirety into a single film without minimizing the band’s significance or essence. 

For longtime fans, seeing Sparks on the big screen in 2021 is an electrifying and tender sight for sore eyes. For those unfamiliar with Sparks, Wright’s documentary leaves a new audience spellbound by the band’s journey and eager to dive into their discography. 

“The Sparks Brothers” not only perfectly captures everything that Sparks is, but it does so with an ease and lucidity that makes 140 minutes feel like five. 

Rate: 10/10. 

Contact Brenna at bsheets@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @BrennaMarieShe1.

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