The SPARKS BROTHERS – Documentary

Posted: May 14, 2021 in MUSIC
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The Sparks Brothers Poster

Edgar Wright turns documentarian with The Sparks Brothers, a documentary about the rock band Sparks which just unveiled an official trailer. The film premiered at Sundance, was picked up by Focus Features, and then screened at SXSW. Those who didn’t catch it during its festival run can watch it in Cinema theatres from June 18th, 2021.

The just-released trailer features Beck, Jason Schwartzmann, Jack Antonoff, Todd Rundgren, Giorgio Moroder, Flea, and the Go-Go’s Jane Wiedlin talking about Sparks – a band that’s described as “your favorite band’s favorite band.”

Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver) directed and produced, with Nira Park, George Hencken, and Laura Richardson also producing. How can one rock band be successful, underrated, hugely influential, and criminally overlooked all at the same time? Edgar Wright’s debut documentary takes audiences on a musical odyssey through five weird and wonderful decades with brothers/bandmates Ron and Russell Mael celebrating the inspiring legacy of Sparks.

The brothers have been making music for 50 years and have released 24 albums, with their 25th in the works.

THE SPARKS BROTHERS ★ Directed by Edgar Wright. In theaters 2021: US & Canada – June 18 Australia – June 24 UK & Ireland – July 30th

Sparks are rock’s perennial outsiders, coming of age as ardent Anglophiles in hippy-dippy late-‘60s L.A. before finding an audience for their erudite art-pop overseas. Of all the preening glam rockers beamed into British living rooms during the early ‘70s, Sparks undoubtedly cast the strangest figures, even if they shirked the gender-bending costumery flaunted by peers like Bowie and Roxy Music. Though Russell boasted de rigueur Bolan curls and a glass-shattering voice that made Freddie Mercury sound timid, his pop-idol visage was undercut by a disarming bug-eyed intensity. The buttoned-up Ron, meanwhile, was the ultimate anti-rock-star, perched behind his keyboard like a schoolmaster at his desk, his creepy toothbrush moustache and disinterested scowls oozing an authoritarian disdain for the kids in the crowd. Exhibiting a performance style more in tune with vaudeville tradition than pop-star posturing, the Maels seemed less like leaders of a rock band than a 1940s comedy double act who were teleported three decades into the future, thrust onto a soundstage and forced to perform their idea of rock‘n’roll on the spot.

But for all their raging irreverence, Sparks have managed to remain novel without lapsing into novelty. They’re not so much trendsetters as trend upsetters.

“This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” (1974)

To capitalize on overseas interest, the Maels moved to England in 1973 and rebuilt Sparks with British players for their breakthrough album, Kimono My House. For a certain generation of Brits, Sparks’ performance of the album’s lead single—a #2 hit in the UK—on “The Top of the Pops” was as transformative as the Beatles’ 1964 appearance on “Ed Sullivan” was for a previous generation of Americans. But even if it’s been bouncing around your brain for 40 years, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” remains resolutely unkaraokeable—its zig-zagging melody, rollercoaster pitch shifts, and overstuffed stanzas still feel as difficult to grasp as flapping fish.

“Girl From Germany” (1973)

After their Todd Rundgren-produced debut album as Halfnelson flopped in America, the newly rebranded five-piece found more sympathetic audiences overseas while touring their second album, A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing. Following their British television debut in November 1972 on “The Old Grey Whistle Test”, word began to spread on the Isles of this weird band from Los Angeles with a keyboardist that looked like Hitler. Ron Mael claims he grew his infamous mini-moustache in tribute to silent-film stars like Charlie Chaplin and Oliver Hardy, however, the waters were muddied by Woofer’s opening track. An outrageous but incisive satire of the post-war prejudices that still lingered in America three decades after WWII, “Girl From Germany” depicts the awkwardness of bringing a German girlfriend home to meet your Jewish parents, whose disapproval is matched only by the hypocrisy of having a Benz in the driveway. (“Well, the car I drive is parked outside/ It’s German-made/ They resent that less than the people/ Who are German-made.”) It’s a prime early example of Sparks’ eagerness to toy with taboos rarely addressed in pop songs, let alone exceedingly cheery ones.

“Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” (1974)

Sparks’ urbane sarcasm is the aesthetic opposite of tree-hugging hippie earnestness. However, this resplendent piano ballad from 1974’s Propaganda adroitly addressed our planet’s fragile nature—and our collective duty to protect it—long before “global warming” became a catchphrase. Its undiminished topical currency has made it a popular cover choice over the years for everyone from Martin Gore (who recorded separate versions within and without his Depeche Mode bandmates) to Neko Case (whose reading forms the thematic centerpiece of her eco-conscious 2009 album, Middle Cyclone).

“Get in the Swing” (1975)

Sparks’ transgressive presence and provocative lyricism made them heroes to first-wave punks like the Ramones and Siouxsie Sioux. However, just as their influence was taking root underground in mid-‘70s London and New York, Sparks’ music was turning ever more fanciful, flitting from their ragtime romps, to arena rock, to Beach Boys homages. The circus-like “Get in the Swing”, from 1975’s appropriately titled Indiscreet, typifies the excess of this period, though its pomped-up parade proved to be more a funeral march for the band’s commercial prospects, precipitating a late-‘70s slide down the UK charts that would necessitate a dramatic shift in course.

“Angst in My Pants” (1982)

After their dalliances with disco, Sparks reverted back to standard rock-band formation, reportedly because touring with (then extremely cumbersome) beat-making equipment proved to be a logistical nightmare. Ironically, with a flesh-and-blood group behind them once again, the Maels’ music turned even more mechanistic. Their new wave singles pretty much all locked into the same zippy 4/4 snare beat, but the formula worked, resulting in respectable showings on the stateside charts for the first time in their career. The best of the bunch is the title track of 1982’s Angst in My Pants, where that omnipresent rhythm forms the ticking-time-bomb soundtrack to some yacht-riding yuppie bastard’s impotence-induced midlife crisis.

“Police Encounters” (2015)

In self-referential Sparks fashion, the band’s foray with Franz Ferdinand climaxes with a multi-sectional suite called “Collaborations Don’t Work”. But the best tracks on FFS feel less like collaborations than full-on genetic fusions. On jaunty highlight “Police Encounters”, Russell and Alex Kapranos bound through the song’s brisk verses and call-back choruses with a finish-each-others-sentences sense of intuition, while Ron’s electric-piano taps and synth textures get hardwired into Franz’s vacuum-sealed rhythm section. Despite the seemingly topical title, don’t expect any political analysis here—the song is a cheeky romp about catching a soft-focus glimpse of a lawman’s fetching wife while getting thrown in the drunk tank. But, coming on the heels of the Maels’ stripped-down Two Hands One Mouth duo tours, FFS heralds Sparks’ resounding return to frantic, futurist rock‘n’roll.

For nearly 50 years, brothers Russell and Ron Mael have made a sport of crashing the zeitgeist, producing brilliantly skewed songs that both revel in and poke fun at pop convention. 

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