Few bands have had such highs and lows as
Sparks. Yet they keep coming back, re-inventing themselves with each iteration
over twenty five albums that span multiple musical genres from pop to rock to
electronic to classical and beyond. Edgar Wright describes himself as a
“fanboy” yet the director’s two and a quarter hour documentary is a
thorough journey through different musical eras. It doesn’t crack the mysteries
surrounding the Mael brothers; we learn nothing much about their personal lives
except as kids growing up. However, it is an absorbing film packed with rare
footage and photos (I wish some of it could be made more readily available) and
even at this length is probably not long enough to show just how incredible a
musical progress Sparks have made.
Ron (keyboards, moustache) and Russell
(vocals, big hair mostly) Mael started their musical journey as kids when they
fell under the influence of rock and roll. Their father died when they were
still pre- teens leaving their mother to bring them up. A series of early bands
failed to make headway and eventually, as Sparks, they started to attract the
attention of established music biz figures such as Todd Rundgren who produced
their first album. Yet it wasn’t till they ditched their regular band to move
to the UK that success first came to Sparks in the form of a trio of albums
that I personally rate as some of the best of all time. A startling Top of
the Pops appearance for the single `This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of
Us` kickstarted a whirlwind two years in 1974-5 but looking back they are unlikely
pop stars. The lyrics and clever musicality of `Kimono My House`, `Propaganda`
and `Indiscreet` suggest an art rock group rather than chart fodder and by the
time the third of these albums (produced by Tony Visconti no less) came out
their teen idol success was already on the wane even if their musical prowess was reaching new heights..
The film includes some remarkable footage
of those days, hysterical fans following them round or invading the stage. It
looks mad and Wright, whose interview subjects are well chosen, even finds
someone who as a girl ran on stage and embraced Ron to talk about it. Elsewhere
there seems a genuine enthusiasm amongst former associates, even band members
who were dropped, about the time they spent with the Maels. Muff Winwood
(Steve’s brother) who produced `Kimono My House` and `Propaganda` is bubbling
with energy about them as if he was making the albums now! And those albums had
a similar effect on young me I have to say even though I didn’t necessarily
understand the lyrics but I knew these songs were something special.
The film is packed with these interviews while key moments in the band’s career are illustrated by cartoons, a genius idea that undercuts the risk of too much reverence. Its not afraid to make fun of the music documentary cliches either with some smart visual gags in which the Maels take part. The brothers remain, in interview form, slightly distant but still warm explaining the logic of each musical progressions as if it all makes perfect sense. They approach each album afresh often more as a reaction against its predecessor rather than attempting to continue the same track. After their mid Seventies success, Sparks vanished from the mainstream but that doesn’t mean they were making bad music, far from it. Hearing for the very first time a track from one of their next couple of albums that came next I made a note to buy that one and by the time the film had finished several Sparks albums I didn’t have or hadn’t heard had made that list.
In 1979 Sparks and the general public
re-connected courtesy of `Number One in Heaven`, an audacious musical move as
it was seen at the time. This album may well be their most influential as the
film includes testimony from several electronic music luminaries to that effect.
I didn’t like it at all at the time but now I play it often and can hear just
how it was ahead of its time. The brother’s career continued in this pattern
with plaudits for an album followed by a left turn in musical direction
alienating their audience again. Unusually for this sort of documentary the
stories of their less commercially successful albums are just as interesting as
hearing about the better known ones like `Lil Beethoven` which is probably their most innovative release, `Gratuitous Sax and Senseless
Violins` (which includes `When Do I Get to Sing My Way` and `Hippopotamus`. A number of songs from each phase of their career are singled out for further attention and you really could watch hours of this!
What I also like about The Sparks Brothers is that it doesn’t shy away from moments in their career that they might rather forget, in particular six years working on a film project that never came off during which time they lived a fairly hand to mouth existence. A lot of artists would gloss over these lows but the film holds steady and however much it may have affected them back then, today the Maels respond to it with their customary relaxed and mildly humorous attitude. They are great interviewees aware that this is entertainment and ready to gently mock each other and be modest about all the praise being heaped on them. Edgar Wright is a perfect director allowing their story to shape itself naturally and keeping the viewer interested. There is no revisionist agenda and with the subjects willing to confront anything with levity and sincerity this is as fulfilling a documentary as you could hope to see. Plus, if you buy it you get a whole two hour Sparks concert as well which makes it the bargain of the year and something for the girl or guy with everything.