The Sparks Brothers – Edgar Wright
FANFARE FOR A REVIEW OF A MUSIC DOCUMENTARY
Obviously it’s the documentary of the year – no arguments entered into - and Edgar Wright’s approach to the work of Ron and Russell Mael is perfect. For anyone unfamiliar with Sparks as a band, this documentary is an essential history and unravelling of them. Sparks have always occupied a space in my mind related to music akin to Douglas Adams in relation to literature – archly, dryly humorous, massively intelligent, seemingly absurd yet achingly moving at the same time. More to the point, whilst Adams was taken from us, Sparks remain, after over 55 years making music. Most astonishing of all, making better music now, arguably, than at most points of their career.
As for the film: Wright takes a fairly standard approach, talking heads (a stellar cast of contemporaries and fans), along with contemporary footage and photographs, and mixes this with animation in various styles to illustrate the sometimes unbelievable stories of the band’s development. He gleefully leaps on the clichés of such a film and dismantles them, beginning with an orchestral fanfare accompanied by Russell’s singing “fanfare for a music documentary...”. For a fan, the early part of the documentary is the most valuable, outlining some of their childhood, illuminating the reasons for their obsessions with sport, Hollywood and surfing. These are intensely private people and rarely allow much insight into their interior lives. For this reason, we don’t get in depth explanations of their more abstract or opaque lyrics, and we don’t see the creative process in media res, as Ron outright says, they make many mistakes which we don’t see, and they wouldn’t want us to see those initial misfires. How much of Ron’s heart is torn out to produce the lyrics is made absolutely clear as the film progresses, however.
What this documentary does do perfectly is demonstrate the appeal of Sparks – these are the most creative musicians you can imagine, who have reinvented themselves constantly and yet remain relevant. Of course, the documentary follows the traditional narrative of success, disillusionment, comeback... Sparks were discovered and mentored by an elder statesman (Todd Rundgren), the band soon left California for England where their sound fitted into the 70s glam image better, producing the extraordinary, clever, funny album Kimono My House and its follow-ups. After a period of success, popularity turns to apathy as it always does, and Sparks returned to the US, eventually, after jokingly saying to an interviewer that their next album would be a collaboration with Giorgio Moroder, having to find Giorgio Moroder and recording the revolutionary album No. 1 in Heaven, which became a blueprint for bands like Depeche Mode, OMD and Pet Shop Boys. (If they would just admit it.)
The 1980s saw massive electropop success with a number one single in France and a popular collaboration with Jane Wiedlin, then creative missteps leading to a six-year hiatus, without a contract and working on a film project with Tim Burton which never saw fruition. Their drummer Christi Haydon is interviewed and is in tears describing their difficulty in that time. This is another thing which comes across strongly: even early band members presumably “let go” or abandoned do not show any bitterness. Current players talk about just how supportive, kind and cool the brothers are: now, it is a low bar to clear for any man in the music industry to not be considered awful, given what a cesspit it daily is reported to be, but the Sparks Brothers are clearly gentle, and gentlemen.
The band’s comeback in 1994 with Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins featured When Do I Get To Sing My Way, the perfect comeback song, blending regret, optimism, anger, acceptance and love into one electric track. Their album of 2002, L’il Beethoven, absolutely cemented their return, a blend of pared-down orchestral backing, wit, caustic comment and experimental structure bringing showers of critical success. The song My Baby’s Taking Me Home, which simply repeats the title phrase to shifting backing, sounds as if it were an experimental piece by Steve Reich or Gavin Bryars (or Groot), and transcends any simple notion of “rock music”.
Of necessity the documentary speeds up over the last twenty years, the collaboration with Franz Ferdinand is covered, along with their extraordinary run of concerts over 21 nights playing all their albums, right up to the latest and finally successful film project with Leos Carax, Annette, ending with Sparks performing triumphantly and listing some untrue facts about themselves, which knowing them might actually be true.
Edgar Wright’s fantastic documentary plays with the form and cannot leave you unmoved, the greatest joy of all being that this is a story that continues, not with “greatest hits” tours or reality show humiliation, but with a band that continues to be relevant, and stronger than ever. Wright’s love of the source material is evident, his access unparalleled, and the whole thing is a total delight.
Based in Scunthorpe, England. A writer and reviewer, working as a Computer Science and Media Lecturer and Educator. Sometimes accused of being a music writer called John Robinson, which is not helped by being a music writer called John Robinson.
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