Rarely would I recommend someone watch a documentary about something they might have absolutely no interest in, but this is a unique character study on these two-of-a-kind brothers that formed a band you might not have heard of before now.
Sparks are a mystery. If you’re unfamiliar with them, you’re not alone, trust me. They’re a band. They sing rock, pop, and everything in between. They’re brothers. Their names are Ron and Russell Male. Somehow they managed to achieve considerable success with a huge cult following and an incredible amount of influence while still being overlooked and avoiding the mainstream. You don’t know them, but director Edgar Wright definitely does, and after seeing this documentary, so will you.
Edgar Wright is known for having directed films like Baby Driver, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Hot Fuzz, and Shaun of the Dead, so it was somewhat of a shock when it was announced he was doing a documentary on a relatively unknown rock duo. It’s clear that a talented director was involved once you hear the impressive sound design, visual effects, and lighting techniques at play. The animation is incredible, especially for a documentary, and the cutaway shots are just as meaningful as the archived footage and close-ups. The fast pace of this doc makes that two-hour-and-twenty-minute runtime fly by in the blink of an eye.
The documentary opens with a variety of influential modern artists and entertainers — Jack Antonoff, Beck, Björk, Duran Duran, Todd Rundgren, Jason Schwartzman, Patton Oswald, Fred Armisen, Mike Meyers, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Flea, and more — sharing their thoughts on Sparks. They described Sparks using words like phenomenal, insane, clever, fantastic, otherworldly, and odd. Getting endorsements from just a couple of those names would be a huge compliment, but there’s no denying Sparks’ influence on music today when you hear it straight from the mouths of some of today’s most influential artists.
One of the most important takeaways from this documentary should be the push and pull with achieving commercial success without selling out the brand that gave them the quirkiness and originality that got them there. This happens all the time in music today, whether you see it in real time or not. Sparks were very devoted to sticking to their own creative vision, even if that meant sacrificing album sales and more fans. It’s camp. It’s more than breaking a mold; they’re making the mold; and this influence is evident in the anecdotes you’ll hear from some of today’s most influential and similarly enigmatic pop culture mouthpieces featured in the doc.
One aspect of the documentary that really resonated with me is how marketing played such a factor in their rise to fame. Sparks ran through countless band names before landing on the one they stuck with, and their album covers and visuals were originally much different from what they ended up choosing. It is proof that marketing and PR can have a massive influence on the music itself and the amount of success. The band name and album cover, especially in the ’80s and ’90s, were the only thing that music fans had to go off of before buying a record. It’s still crucial in today’s environment to set an artist apart from the sea of competition.
The brothers struggled to fulfill the needs of their record label, which caused issues professionally. The label wanted a sound like Red Hot Chili Peppers, or something angrier, but that wasn’t what Sparks wanted to do. They were experimental and took risks to create music that channeled their individuality. Everything they did was in favor of “the cause” as they call it — SPARKS. They completely shape shifted between albums, moving on to the next album almost entirely as the other is released. They reinvented the rules as they went step by step.
They were forgotten, and, frankly, they’re forgotten now. If you’re 30 years old or younger, did you honestly know the history of the Sparks Brothers prior to hearing about their documentary? If so, please email me.
Rarely would I recommend someone watch a documentary about something they might have absolutely no interest in, but this is a unique character study on these two-of-a-kind brothers that formed a band you might not have heard of but won’t matter while you’re watching this doc. It’s this unparalleled combo of classical and futuristic. You might be thinking of some artists who have done that combo, but they didn’t do it like SPARKS.
The Sparks Brothers is playing in theaters now.