In The Sparks Brothers, master storyteller Edgar Wright introduces us to Sparks, crafting a documentary that’s as captivating, cool and ironic as the pop-rock duo itself.
What happens when the director of genre-defining, technically impressive, wonderfully ironic gems like Shaun of the Dead and Baby Driver wants to let you know that you really should check out a band? The answer is The Sparks Brothers, a film whose very opening – the titular band introducing the film as the credits roll, singing lines such as “Documentary film fanfare!” and “Edgar Wright film fanfare!” (hence the title of this review) – immediately sets the tone for what’s to come. Because this particular film is not just one of the most memorable experiences at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but also one of the coolest music documentaries you’ll ever watch. It doesn’t even matter if you like Sparks or not, or whether or not you’ll want to get more acquainted with their music after you’ve seen the film: The Sparks Brothers is the film you’ll find yourself unexplicably drawn to, even if it’s simply to acknowledge the cinematic craft behind it.
Centred on a band described by Wright himself as “both a riddle and a full-on obsession”, The Sparks Brothers isn’t just the rare music documentary that actually contains many of the band’s songs, but it’s also as authentic as it is genuinely interesting and entertaining. In the attempt to paint an accurate picture of a band that was “successful, underrated, hugely influential, and overlooked, all at the same time”, Wright lets Ron and Russell Mael introduce themselves. Staring directly at the camera in gorgeous black and white, the brothers reminisce, joke around, reflect on themselves, and never lose the irony and the charisma that has defined their music for years.
In a hilarious google autocomplete-style interview, we learn that Ron and Russell are, indeed, brothers, that one of them is a singer and the other isn’t, and that no, they’re “not an English band, dude!”. Even before we find out all about the five decades in which they recoded over 250 songs and made 25 studio albums (though “with advances in medical technology, hopefully there will be 200 more”), we are mesmerized by the earnestness of the artists facing us, and absolutely ready to follow Wright on a journey through the origins and career of this “criminally overlooked” duo.
Among Wright’s trademarks is the way he revolutionised the use of sound in film, bringing it to the foreground and making it an integral part of the action, no matter the film’s genre, and you can expect the same level of technical dedication in The Spark Brothers. Thanks to flawless cinematography, editing, and sound design, the film is never boring even if it’s over two hours long. So much is packed in the film’s runtime, from brief snippets of various celebrities (Mike Myers, Duran Duran, Jonathan Ross, among others) to archive footage, photographs, album covers and plenty of songs to listen to, that you’ll be too busy taking it all in (and shazamming tracks) to look at your watch.
As title cards come and go, innovately introducing information – plenty of song titles, as you’d expect, but also the fact that the band’s history started “not in gloomy England, but in sunny California”, for instance – not only will you learn about what influenced Sparks’ most politically incorrect lyrics, but you’ll also become acquainted with their own, very specific brand of irony. I won’t tell you anything else about Sparks, as that would ruin your own discovery of the band as you watch the documentary. Let’s just say that, by the time the film reaches the end, you’ll be surprised by the amount of information you retained, and you’ll instantly find yourself wanting to learn everything there is to know about an American pop-rock duo that already feels somehow familiar, even if you’ve only just found out about them.
Both highly informative and endlessly entertaining, The Sparks Brothers is a loving tribute to a fascinating band, and an achievement in storytelling by one of the greatest directors of our time.
The Sparks Brothers premiered online, at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, on Saturday, January 30, 2021. The film will be released by Focus Features on June 18, 2021.