There are two types of cult following for bands: the Cool Cult, that most people won’t have heard of but the wearing of whose t-shirt will get you an appreciative nod from the girl behind the counter in the record store; and the Deep Cult, who will get you nothing but blank stares from everyone – except for that one guy in a million who has literally everything they ever recorded and whose love of the band is so all-consuming that it’s not entirely out of the question he has them tied up in his basement. In their long and productive career, Sparks have had both of these. They’ve also been legitimately popular and the number of other bands who can chalk up all three of those can be pretty much counted on the fingers of one foot.
Which part of their career is which, however, depends largely upon where you park your bicycle. Sparks are not unlike a total eclipse; visible in different degrees to different places at different times. For those of us in Britain, they were most visible throughout the 1970s, whereas in their native United States, they were a fixture in the early 80s heyday of Mtv. A lot of the stuff about their second coming in their homeland was news to me as a resident of the UK, where they seemed to disappear from view after their Giorgio Moroder collabs of the late 70s. Likewise, Stateside commentators remark upon how they knew little of Sparks’ early success on this side of the pond.
So right now, when Sparks are straddling the line between Cool Cult and popularity on a global scale bolstered by the WorldWide Web, is the ideal time for a documentary like Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers, exploring the genius, longevity and influence of Ron and Russell Mael. And because different parts of the world viewed the success of Sparks from a different perspective, this film has something that will have something new to tell you wherever about in the world you live. Clocking in at around the 140-minute mark, it’s not for those with a short attention span, but there’s plenty in there to keep you interested if you have even a passing interest in the band. It succeeds over a lot of other documentary films by simply keeping the flow of information constantly moving and never allowing the viewer to get bored.
The film revolves around the axis of a deadpan interview with the Mael brothers, filmed in stark black and white, as are the legion of famous names who appear to comment on the band and their works. Music clips and vintage TV appearances are in colour. Some events that occurred in the life of Sparks are illustrated with quirky animations, but these are brief and are never allowed to dominate the proceedings. Ron and Russell Mael are famously enigmatic and this documentary is probably the closest that we’ll ever get to seeing into their private lives, with scenes set in Russell’s Los Angeles home and recording studio. They remain, however, closely guarded about their relationships, apart from one reference to a young lady who dated both brothers at various times during the early days of the band.
There’s an embarrassment of riches for anyone who is a collector of Sparks’ various TV appearances over the years and the clips that are shown here demonstrate both Russell and Ron’s proclivity for having fun at the expense of TV hosts. Watch Russell and Jane Wiedlin shamelessly winding up the host of an American TV show and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Although the boys can come across as reserved, sometimes even quiet, what comes across from a lot of these vintage clips is their desire to shake it up when appearing on anodyne mainstream TV, sometimes as a contractual obligation. They are subversive, but not in an obvious Sex Pistols sort of way; Sparks are quietly subversive, giving the boundaries of established TV behaviour a gentle push to see how far it will bend before eventually breaking.
All 25 of the Sparks albums are covered here, in various degrees of depth. It was always going to be that significant game-changers like Kimono My House, No.1 in Heaven and Li’l Beethoven got more attention than some of the others, but nothing is glossed over and some interesting information comes to the fore. For example, I never knew that Sparks initially resisted the idea of the retrospective album Plagiarism and only suggested the idea of ‘revisiting’ their older tracks as a more palatable alternative to the label’s idea of recording a live album. What is very clear is that Ron and Russell are both very much forward-thinking people and don’t like to dwell too much on the past. They perform ‘greatest hits’ selections as part of their live show, but delight in digging up the more obscure album tracks from their back catalogue.
Live shows are covered extensively in this documentary, from Russell being mobbed by girls onstage during their glam era to their incredible 22-day residency at London’s Carling Academy in 2008, where they performed every one of their albums to date in full, an impressive but – admitted by everyone who took part – exhausting achievement. I was at two of those gigs, Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins and Exotic Creatures of the Deep, both towards the end of the run, but they never seemed any less than super-energised on stage. Apart from this remarkable exception, Sparks in recent years have avoided lengthy tours and this documentary makes it clear that is because they are essentially homebodies. Sure, they’re workaholics, but their work is essentially their life, so the thing that they’re actually addicted to is life – and I think we can all relate to that.
You won’t come away from The Sparks Brothers knowing everything about Sparks; they remain an enigma and quite rightly so. But you will come away with a little more of an insight into Ron and Russell Mael… or at least, as much of an insight as they comfortably want you to know. Edgar Wright has pulled off the almost impossible, allowing us a privileged peek into the lives of these most private of persons. Will we ever know everything about them? I hope not, to be honest; I like a mystery, I like an enigma and for this reason I love Sparks. And since being in their seventies doesn’t seem to be slowing them down at all, I look forward to loving Sparks for many more years to come. So, if you’re a Sparks fan, you’ll love this and if you’re not a Sparks fan, don’t be put off by the running time – check it out and you might just learn something.