Directed By Edgar Wright
Starring – Ron Mael, Russell Mael, Beck
The Plot – Growing up in the ’60s, Los Angeles brothers Ron and Russell got by on a heavy diet of popcorn matinees and pop music until the spotlight of school talent shows illuminated their way on a musical journey as Sparks and spawned 25 studio albums. Edgar Wright’s vision brings five decades of invention to life through animations and interviews, digging deeply into the band’s rich, career-spanning archival.
Rated R for adult language
– The Wright touch. Edgar and the Mael brothers feel like perfect dance partners for a production of this or any other magnitude, for the vibrancy of personality and substantial style in identity that influences the experimental side of their art. In the respect of this film, Wright channels a light-hearted humor and playfulness in both a series of visual sight gags with the title cards, and an easy-going atmosphere in its series of interviews that bottles the essence that the band made famous during fifty plus years of an influential catalogue. On top of this, the presentation itself is stuffed full of visual expressionism that not only play coherently to the eclectic nature of the band’s instrumentals, but fleshes out many diverse forms of animation, like two-dimensional hand-drawn and claymation, that grant an out of body experience to the uniqueness of the band’s enhancing visual prowess.
– Complete picture. Music, like humor, is subjective to everyone it interacts with, and while I can safely say that the majority of Sparks’ 25 albums of work isn’t completely up my alley of my own musical interests, there’s more than enough included in a nearly two-and-a-half hour presentation that spans many unique styles and contemporaries for an intriguing audience. As with anything, the fans of the band will get the most from this experience, but I feel that even with the uneducated ones like myself, there’s an accessibility to what is presented that refuses to alienate those who never knew this band existed in the first place, and afford them an expansive delve that will have you feeling like an expert by film’s end. This does unfortunately lead to some problems with the pacing, which I will get to later, but what is undeniable is the scope in magnitude that Sparks and Wright are working with that never feel wasted or limited in their use, instead outlining a vividly three-dimensional offering with the soundtrack that aims to please fans of any particular genre or accommodating album along the way.
– Eye-opening. Part of what makes Sparks such a revolutionary band is the influence that their many eclectic ranges of instruments have had in fleshing out a diversity in pop music that they constantly feel one step ahead of. This not only leads to several bands borrowing and honing the new wave and electronica dance crazes that were all the rave in the 80’s and 90’s respectively, but also points to an underlining poignancy explored thoroughly throughout the narrative, in which these bigger artists are receiving the universal acclaim that was never afforded to this brotherly duo who are arguably responsible for creating such, in our own backyard of west coast Americana. It elevates Sparks with an effect on the industry that certainly affords them a chapter of their own in the eventual history of music that will someday be written, all the while humbling an argument with studios, who look down shamefully on bands incorporating humor to the integrity of their music.
– Big stage presence. Because of the outlined narrative instilled with a film that treats a relatively unknown band with a degree of monumental importance, we are given a barrage of A-list celebrity testimonials to further the argument in impact of our titular protagonists. Musical names like Beck, Jane Wiedlin, and Weird Al Yankovic, to name a few, are joined by actors Mike Myers, Fred Armisen, and Jason Schwartzman to not only cement music’s biggest little secret, but also sift through five decades of silly lyrics and vast varieties of instrumentals that echo the band’s capabilities. What’s most important here are the brothers themselves telling a majority of the focus and narrative that the film explores through, but it is refreshing nonetheless to see the impact that they’ve had on some of the biggest names in and out of the industry, prescribing a decades-owed love-letter to them to say thank you.
– Masterful stitching. Without question, the single greatest element of production for me personally was that of the editing, which has the monumental task of piecing together as much home movies, on-stage footage, and various music videos for the band, in order to create one cohesive narrative that spans fifty years of a career. This element alone could disjoint or even overcomplicate the simplicity of visuals that the band often toyed with in album covers or minimally budgeted music videos, but instead Wright and company conjure up a music video essence to the presentation that feels like it intentionally cuts with the defined beats of the music, all the while incorporating a balance of stock footage during the various decades to paint an immersive picture to the shape of the ever-changing musical dynamic with one constant; them.
– Unconventionally diverse. One of the refreshing aspects in expectation that this film deviates from is the necessity to include elements of the band’s personal life, for the sake of conflict or dramatic allure. That’s not to say that the film is conflict-free as a whole, as the band’s lack of success on the music scene creates more than an insurmountable foe to their creativity, it’s just that it leaves what’s unnecessary on the cutting room floor, and the experience is no less intriguing because of such. In a typical documentary, this would be problematic for my investment to the people that the story revolves around, but considering Sparks was a strange and anonymous band that seemed to burst on the scene quite literally out of nowhere, the film maintains the mystique of their mystery with a purely professional dissection that leaves the melodrama far from influential circumstances.
– Overstuffed. At two hours and twenty minutes, “The Sparks Brothers” forcefully overstays its welcome with some creative choices with the structure of its storytelling that never evolves from in a way to maintain momentum for the narrative. For my money, the problem is really in the redundancy of the general outline, sifting through a formulaic approach in each album and accompanying songs that highlight the thinktank process, but very little else creatively about why the song is unique or special to the band compared to the others. On top of that, the entire third act feels like the same complimentary fluff that is initially used to pull audiences in during the introductory first act, and leaves Wright’s film feeling void of a satisfactory ending that tied everything up, and sent audiences home on a note of curiosity, instead of the repetitive marathon that we received in its place.
– Forgotten pieces. Even in a film with as much unnecessary fluff and momentum-building problems as this one has, it still manages to leave out a few pivotal pieces of the band’s domestic fame that did offer momentary mainstream appeal in pop culture. In 1982, the band was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live during an episode hosted by Danny Devito. This is big because SNL producer Lorne Michaels had no idea who the band was when they were signed to appear, and eventually went on to be quoted for loving their unique brand of spectacle that catered to the stage. Considering this was their single biggest performance from a mainstream perspective, it most definitely should’ve been added to the film. In addition to this, the band’s use of two tracks on the “Valley Girl” soundtrack, a fashion-frenzied portrait of 80’s nostalgia for the time, is just as glossed over, without any indication of its existence. Perhaps these things took away from Wright’s argument of the band never attaining domestic acclaim, but knowing of their existence creates a falsifying re-telling of history that I simply couldn’t shake from my experience, leaving “The Sparks Brothers” playing through the narrative that they themselves created especially for the film.
– Self-pandering. There’s a fine appreciation for the adulation brought on by many celebrity guests, and even Wright himself when he proclaims himself as a fanboy on screen. But it’s that level of fandom that weighs down the integrity of the experience, creating something that feels self-indulgent, over something ably interpretive. Once again, if this were occasional, it could easily be overlooked, but the repetitively long consistency of its usage often overstays its welcome, and had me demanding a return to the expositional storytelling that it periodically halts to club audiences over the head constantly with how great this band is. On top of it all, creating this sense of awesomeness only underwhelmed my interpretation of their various tracks littered throughout, as I enjoyed Sparks’ music finely enough, but not on the level of the gushing made prominent by everyone included.
My Grade: 7/10 or B-