We seem to be living at the tail end of a golden age for the music documentary. For a while there you couldn’t move for the blighters, some of which were genuinely impressive. But now that BBC Four no longer has the budget to make or show them seems like a fair indicator that a chapter is over. Here, though, is a major new entry in the genre from director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Baby Driver). So, is there life in the old dog yet?
Actually, in many ways The Sparks Brothers isn’t a traditional music documentary at all. Yes, it tells the tale of Sparks, that’s to say American-born, Europhile brothers Ron and Russell Mael, and their highly idiosyncratic five-decade career. But it’s not the standard ‘behind the scenes’/’meet the family’ job previously peddled by everyone from the Osbournes and Metallica to Bros. By the end, you’ll have learned precisely nothing about the Maels’ private lives. They’ve always keenly cultivated their mystique and they manage to maintain it here, rather playfully. Instead, the emphasis is firmly on the albums, the songs, the music.
Archive clips illustrating the band’s gradual evolution are interspersed with interview footage from a wide-ranging guest list, surely the only time Mike Myers, Mark Gatiss, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, Jonathan Ross and Stephen Morris have all shared the same bill. Naturally, the Maels are among the talking heads too. Over the course of the whole film, Ron Mael emerges as perhaps the real star (sorry, Russell), a cherishable hero – yes, Hitler muzzie, creepy leer and all.
In execution these interviews are plain black and white headshots, classy but unfussy, leaving the archive material, and occasional bits of animation, to be much wilder, more colourful and vivid. Some cracking little yarns get spun along the way and it’s all intuitively assembled, making a great showcase for Wright’s trademark high-octane editing techniques.
It doesn’t hurt that Wright has always had a fascination with cutting music to moving images, dating right back to his days making Spaced. What’s more, Sparks have always harboured a love of film and a sense of the cinematic, so their collaboration here dovetails neatly.
And those songs! Talent is an Asset, Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth, The Number One Song in Heaven, Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me), each one a peculiar, delightful, Marmitety dispatch direct from Sparksworld, In point of fact, they make much more sense here, in widescreen sound and vision, than they might on a 6 Music playlist or a Top of the Pops repeat. An acquired taste, perhaps, but one that the newcomer is far more likely to acquire as presented here.
At nearly two and a half hours long, The Sparks Brothers is a bit of a beast and, though it doesn’t exactly drag, there are times when some kind of more compelling narrative thread wouldn’t go amiss. After all, it’s not some dramatic rags to riches tale. Sparks haven’t exactly been languishing unknown for decades, merely buffeted about by the vicissitudes of fortune and fashion.
Nor does the film give the Maels any kind of grilling whatsoever. For instance, there’s nowt on their mutual admiration with, and ultimate rejection of, yer man Morrissey. You could argue that the whole film is nothing more than Wright and his famous mates singing the band’s praises, but so be it. That works nevertheless, as a celebration of Sparks driven by sheer enthusiasm, energy and no little charm, an expertly constructed big screen love letter from Wright. Indeed, it might actually be his most satisfying film so far.
In some ways then, it’s surprising that it’s taken so long for someone to make a Sparks documentary, but undeniably it’s worked out for the best. They’re not an easy band to describe, they’re unconventional, mischievous, contrary, even faintly ludicrous, but if you harbour the suspicion that they’re all a bit arch and emotionally arid, the heart-stopping live performance of My Baby’s Taking Me Home featured here may be enough to win you over.
There should be plenty to admire here for anyone, whether you’re a committed lifelong Sparks fan or you’re familiar with nothing beyond This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us. To his great credit, Wright has assembled a near-perfect introduction to Sparks more than 50 years into their story.
By Andy Murray, Music and Film Editor