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Review: The Sparks Brothers (2021)

The Sparks Brothers (2021)

Directed by: Edgar Wright

Premise: A documentary about the band Sparks. The film profiles musical siblings Ron and Russell Mael and their half a century musical career.   

What Works: Sparks is one of the most important pop acts that most people have never heard of and the documentary The Sparks Brothers brings the band’s story to the screen with humor and style that befits the Mael brothers’ singular style. This is a musical biography but unlike a lot of profiles of musicians, The Sparks Brothers is free of cliché sex, drugs, and rock and roll drama. That’s not the story of the Maels, who by all accounts have lived modest lives and leveraged their success to purchase artistic freedom. That is the narrative and thematic through-line of The Sparks Brothers. Ron and Russell Mael have been making music for half a century and they’ve consistently been ahead of the cultural curve. That innovation made Sparks an influential band but it’s also generally kept mainstream success (in the United States at least) just out of reach. The Sparks Brothers documents the band’s discography, exploring each of their releases and profiling the band’s creative and commercial ups and downs, and the band’s story is told in a way that suits their quirky and offbeat style. The Sparks Brothers was directed by Edgar Wright, a filmmaker known for the musicality of his feature films such as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Baby Driver and Wright is a perfect match with Sparks and the Maels. Wright’s enthusiasm for Sparks is obvious but this documentary goes beyond fanboy approbation. The film is irreverent and funny but deals with its subject very seriously in much the same way Sparks merged musical craftsmanship and a self-aware sense of humor. The documentary utilizes testimonials from a diverse roster of talking head commentators including musicians such as Giorgio Moroder, Beck, and Weird Al Yankovic as well as music producer Jack Antonoff, novelist Neil Gaiman, and comedian Patton Oswalt among many others. Despite the reliance on testimony, The Sparks Brothers never feels stodgy or formal. The film remains loose and incorporates idiosyncratic details while covering fifty years of music with a rigorous focus.

What Doesn’t: The only reservation about The Sparks Brothers is the absence of contrarian voices. Almost no one has anything negative to say about Sparks. The film doesn’t need to manufacture drama but the documentary might have benefitted from commentary by critics or musicians who are not fans of the band.

Bottom Line: The Sparks Brothers is an immensely entertaining documentary that ought to speak to Sparks fans while also engaging viewers who have never heard of the band. This is a nearly perfect mergence of filmmaking with a musical subject and it reveals Edgar Wright to be as adept at documentaries as he is at feature filmmaking.

Episode: #857 (June 27, 2021)