Edgar Wright’s fan-boy documentary about Ron & Russell Mael, the brothers who comprise the long-running cult band Sparks, is a worthwhile view for anyone who has been a longtime fan of the band, and worthwhile for someone who has only a vague familiarity with a song or two, or has never heard of them.
The film advertises Sparks as “your favorite band’s favorite band,” and this sums up a lot of it – they have always been admired and held in awe by people within the music world for decades, largely since Sparks serves as a shining example of a music act that never really sold out commercially – they have changed their sound (somewhat) over the years (though they remain largely a synth rock/pop sound driven by Ron’s keyboards and Russell’s falsetto flourishes) – and whenever they had issued a commercial hit, it often led to them continuing to experiment with different line-ups, producers, or a general approach. Add to that an amazing consistency in clever and often humorous lyrics – decades worth, rivaling Zappa in the “prolific” category if not the genre experimentation category – and you can see why every one of your favorite bands holds them in such esteem. These guys have actually had the art-for-art-sakes career that every musician pines for.
Wright’s film traces the lives and careers of the brothers Mael in great detail, mixing tons of archival footage with present day interviews shot in black and white, as well as some animation. The film will certainly tell you the entire chronology of the band and its ups and downs as far as successful releases, change of record labels, and the different phases of their story.
It’s a fun ride – but Wright is so blinded by his love for the band that the film often becomes repetitive and leaves out a deeper examination of their music. Anyone who has followed the Maels’ career knows that they are very secretive about their personal and private lives, and prefer to present themselves to the public as the quirky-artsy music act they’ve been for all these years. Despite all the narrative we get in a music doc running two and a quarter hours – that’s all we’re STILL left with in the end – and that’s fine – but perhaps in those two and a quarter hours, we might find SOME room for deeper reflection and discussion of their music itself?
We get wisps of songs and videos the band has done – Wright picks most of their best work to showcase here – but he goes through all of it so quickly that we get no anchor, no key window into the ways that Ron writes these songs, or which of those songs he and Russell might have something to say about, in terms of why they got written in the first place. Not one song is presented in its entirety. This is a huge mistake.
Other music docs have run into problems with their subject – Taylor Hackford’s Chuck Berry doc Hail, Hail, Rock & Roll showcases a fantastic concert of all stars backing up Chuck, but Berry shut down any attempt during interviews that took the narrative into darker places, even if they were true. End of the Century: The Story of The Ramones went to those dark places – celebrating the music of the band and their enormous influence on other bands – but also presented the frustration and interpersonal problems the band went through. There are a lot of similarities in the Ramones’ story and Sparks – both bands never achieved the huge commercial success they had been touted for early on in their careers, but both bands influenced countless other bands and were viewed with awe by fellow musicians. The Ramones wanted that commercial fame – Sparks could care less.
The XTC documentary, This Is Pop, also dealt greatly with the commercial success versus artistic integrity issues and how they can rip a band apart – but the film makers managed to get Andy Partridge on camera discussing his composition method, and how his synaesthesia figures into it – and watching those few minutes suddenly made nearly every one of his songs make sense.
Wright gives us no such insight into what comprises the songwriting of the Maels. A few seconds of a song will be played, and some interviewee will comment on a lyric line or two – and that’s all. I really don’t care what Fred Armisen things of a Sparks lyric. I’d rather hear Ron Mael talk about where it came from. There is one moment when former band members reveal that the music would be written first with nonsense words, and the actual lyrics would come in at the last minute. Why not interview the Maels about this process? Is it the routine, since they prefer routine in their daily lives?
I’d rather hear it from them than the parade of cool-approved personalities telling us how much they love the band – Wright takes up far too much screen time with famous fans of the band all saying basically the same thing. I don’t care how much Patton Oswalt or Amy Sherman-Palladino or Mike Meyers love this band. I also don’t NEED their stamp of approval for me to like them either – and that’s probably the biggest flaw with this film. Wright’s interviews with their former band mates, producers and music industry people offer far more insight into the Sparks’ story than hearing the same “Oh those guys are so cool!” gushing from people we’re supposed to follow the tastes of.
More of the film should be about the music. Granted, 25 albums and hundreds of songs are a lot of ground to cover, but why not have the Maels pick a few of their favorites for closer examination, or find a way to feature those songs in their entirety in the film? Like I said, we get no song in its entirety at all. We’re told over and over again how brilliant this band is – and often by people totally unrelated to the production of music – but we are not allowed to listen to the evidence in depth. And we never get any sort of deeper reflection from the Maels, either via Wright’s interviews or in archival footage, on any of the songs themselves. It’s biggest hole in the film.
And I’ll admit that while I’m always happy to have a band like this out there, it’s not like I own a ton of their records and listen to them all the time. I like these guys a lot, but I’ve always found them to be more of an art-visual act rather than just music alone. Check out some of their videos on their youtube channel I link in a bit to see the totality of it all. Wright’s doc mentions their love of film and their near-misses in getting more involved with movies (although it looks like they have a soundtrack gig coming up). They’re not the obvious “art school band” that Devo or Talking Heads are, but they’ve gotca similar vibe. The synth-pop sound is okay to me, but not my passion – but this movie’s lack of depth for their music DID have me diving deep into youtube, (Here is a link to Sparks’ official youtube channel) listening to the songs of theirs I did remember pretty well, and then discovering their more recent material. And all of it was pretty good. I kept thinking more of it needed to be in the film.
So I recommend the movie on that level – it’s an overly long documentary that somehow manages to make you hungry enough for what it ought to be about.