Cult musicians inspire a level of fan devotion that’s rarely equaled outside, say, Hall H at San Diego Comic-Con. What other artists inspire their admirers to spend months of their lives obsessively following them on tours or create an entire subsystem of language inspired by imagery in their lyrics?
Go ahead and watch two die-hard fans of Phish or Ween have a conversation and try to figure out what the hell they’re saying. That unbridled enthusiasm is contagious among a fanbase, but it can be downright annoying to outsiders.
The Sparks Brothers, director Edgar Wright’s first foray into documentary filmmaking, is a feature-length attempt to convert such outsiders into the inner sanctum of Sparks, a delightfully strange synth-pop duo composed of brothers Ron and Russell Mael.
Although Sparks’ first album was released in 1971, three years before Wright was born, the two are an inspired pairing for this thorough career retrospective. The works of both Wright and Sparks are defined by a playful self-awareness and willingness to play with genre conventions. In his breakout film, Shaun of the Dead, Wright incorporated elements of horror, slapstick comedy and the jukebox musical in one dizzying zombie-massacre sequence set to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” In a song like 1979’s “The Number 1 Song in Heaven,” Sparks’ distinct strengths are on full display with a euphoric blend of electronic music, disco and showtunes as singer Russell Mael belts out the tongue-in-cheek refrain: “This is the number one song in heaven / Written, of course, by the mightiest hand.” Wright and the Maels are total goofballs, sure, but they’re also consummate professionals in their respective fields and The Sparks Brothers is a consistently entertaining showcase of their talents.
The movie’s poster touts Sparks as “your favorite band’s favorite band,” and sure enough, the talking heads in this documentary are a murderer’s row of formidable talent — musical or otherwise. Music nerds (including this writer) will certainly enjoy seeing artists like Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, “Weird Al” Yankovic or Flea talk about the admiration they’ve had for Sparks over the years, as well as comedic actors such as Mike Myers and Patton Oswalt who’ve been inspired by Russell and Ron’s goofy theatricality on stage and in their music videos. Those talking heads are interspersed through a chronological retelling of the band’s entire career, which has now spanned five decades and 25 albums. Therein lies the The Sparks Brothers’ primary issue: By covering such an excessive chronology, the 135-minute running time inevitably feels bloated.
Wright brings as much of his caffeinated energy and inventive visual sense as he can to the proceedings, including segments rendered in both hand-drawn and stop-motion animation, constant silly editing tricks and archival clips. Still, around the one-hour mark, you can’t help but get the sense that The Sparks Brothers is spinning its wheels. Hearing different people tell you over and over about how great a band is can be engaging depending on who’s telling you, but around the 10th time you hear someone like Beck tell you just how enigmatic the two brothers from Sparks were, and how “no one really knew who these guys were,” it gets a tad tiresome.
Where the movie excels is showing musicians and artists drawing direct lines between Sparks and their cultural impact. For example, an animated segment shows John Lennon and Paul McCartney (respectively voiced by regular Wright colleagues Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) watching Sparks perform on a BBC program for the first time, and then later we see how the band inspired the music video for McCartney’s own song “Coming Up” in 1980. Anecdotes like that make The Sparks Brothers essential viewing for anyone with a penchant for rock-music history. For everyone else, it will prove more exhausting than exhaustive.