Jun 18, 2021
By Owen Maxwell
Despite a strong, fifty-year career that’s produced 25 albums, pop pioneers Sparks are equally described as being overlooked yet highly influential. From their 1960s debut as Halfnelson and through multiple reinventions they’ve gone from preppy pop, to Queen-style anthems, to electronic music, all with their cinematic kind of theatrics. They’ve also somehow collaborated with the likes of Jane Wiedlin (the Go-Go’s), Giorgio Moroder, and Franz Ferdinand. Sparks’ unusual trajectory and sound has also earned them an unusual quirk of being a band many people hear about from interviews with other bands. It’s a career so unbelievable that you’re likely to spend hours reading about them the first time you hear their story.
This is exactly why Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver) thought a documentary on Sparks was prime material. More so, Sparks’ decades-long comedic lyricism, tongue-in-cheek album covers, and music videos meant that Wright had the perfect mixture of art and humor to complement their work.
The two-hour-plus The Sparks Brothers covers all 25 albums, weird tours, and other projects that came and went. Interviews from the likes of Flea, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, Fred Armisen, Amy Sherman-Palladino, Björk and more really flesh out just how many artists they’ve resonated with. There are wacky cartoons, claymation, and enough archival footage of the group that even their childhood trip to see the Beatles is in there. Though a long watch, anyone new to the band will be transfixed. Even some of the stories known to average fans are enhanced through the interviews and visual flair Wright brings out in the documentary. Where the personal drama of an Anvil! The Story of Anvil is notably absent, the visual flair this lends to so much of their work takes the viewing experience in a whole other direction.
Ahead of The Sparks Brothers debut on June 18, Wright’s upcoming horror film Last Night in Soho, and Sparks’ own film, Annette, we spoke to the director and the band about the kind of documentary they wanted to make, the fun they had interviewing so many people, and how you sustain a career over five decades without drama.
Owen Maxwell (Under the Radar): The documentary covers the entire breadth of the band, while avoiding the usual, deeply personal dive into their lives. Edgar, you have talked about making this to give people an overview of Sparks, so how did you navigate this focus while trying to not leave anything important out?
Edgar Wright: I think really, I wanted to make the film about the work, in a way. I found a lot of music documentaries assume your familiarity with the subject, and would focus more on personal stuff than actually the work. I felt like with Sparks, with 50 years of incredible albums in many different genres, there was a lot to talk about. In a way, I guess my thesis of it was: There is no Sparks “golden period,” the golden period is still going because Sparks are a going concern. Also in a way, my pitch for it would have been: What inspired Ron and Russell, the work that they created, and who have they inspired? This would show their full cultural footprint. That was my brief because I felt with Sparks, as a big fan, I knew from talking to other people, that they had either pockets of knowledge or that they didn’t know the whole overview of it, or that they didn’t know them at all! So I felt like it was something where I wanted to make it both a celebration and an introduction.
Not to say they’re not valid, but sometimes when there are documentaries that only deal in the sort of soap opera side of it. Like, if I watch a Police documentary and all it’s about is Andy Summers and Sting not getting along, I’m thinking “Yeah, this is great, tell me some more about the songs.” I think one of the genius things to Sparks, and why there are 25 albums and not the kind of fallout that happens to a lot of brothers in bands is because in terms of the lack of soap opera in their lives, I think that Ron and Russell figured out a way to put the drama on record. I think that the music is the most explosive part of it. In a way, knowing them a little bit before I did the documentary, the inkling that I had, is that there wasn’t something behind the curtain.
Ron and Russell, you’ve both spoken about trying to keep an air of mystery to the band, so did you that this approach might not take your mystique away?
Ron Mael (Sparks): I suppose, but we’re also so tied up into being Sparks that I’m not even sure that we’re withholding anything, you know what I mean? It’s so difficult to talk about those things like “When you go on stage, are you putting that on?” It isn’t like there’s all this interesting stuff that isn’t in the documentary. I think that our whole being is based on, I mean, maybe it’s kind of pathetically that this is the situation, but really our whole beings are centered around being in Sparks. So we didn’t feel like there’s this treasure trove of secrets. You mentioned also just about some of the issues like the craft, like song writing and things like that, and those kinds of things are done in a very non-methodical way that it would be hard to present, at least in our case. They just come in very scattered and just without being planned so much. It was better just to skip that and go onto the good stuff!
Looking at your band, with so many multiple high points between Kimono My House, and No. 1 in Heaven, and then recent material like A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, I was surprised we mostly only hear your bandmate Christi Haydon talk about your hardships with writing so much material all the time. So, I was interested to hear your take on that uphill battle, and how your work ethic helped you keep on?
Russell Mael (Sparks): I think the documentary and Edgar’s slant in the documentary was how that despite any roadblocks, and obstacles along the way, that as an artist the important thing is just maintaining your integrity and following your own judgment about what you should be doing creatively! I think that that was one of the major themes, and it’s expressed throughout the whole film. If you don’t follow your own muse, at the end you risk having nothing tangible. You sold your soul and then you may or may not have even gotten whatever it is, some commercial success or whatever. Even if you were trying to do things in a way that you thought was more appealing to more people. So I think that that was a major thing that we were really happy came across in our whole saga. It wasn’t just a history of our band, but that our story also had a moral that was exemplified by us. Part of the reason that we’re still doing stuff at this at this stage in our careers that is still vibrant is that that we have followed our own path. And that can be applied to other young people starting off and their own careers in a creative endeavor! A lot of the early feedback from the film so far is that it’s really touched a lot of people, who are saying “You inspired me to carve my own path, because I can see that that’s what you guys did!” So if that’s something that people get from this film, we think it’s really great!
Edgar: The thing that I was always really intrigued about as it that it seems like Ron and Russell were on the clock the whole time with Sparks. In that way, as they share in the film, Albert Einstein used to have that thing where he used to wear the same clothes every day, and eat the same lunch every day, because he wanted all of his mental energy in his work! I feel like it’s a similar thing with Ron and Russell in terms of their 25 operatic, incredible albums that are talking about life. I’m speaking for you guys, but I feel like all of that drama is in the music.
Russell: Based on what you said, I wish we could re-film, and add a little addendum to the documentary because you articulated it actually really well. I will have to remember that one!
Edgar, there are so many great comedic moments here between the animated segments and the silly lower thirds. I was interested to hear how you wanted to add your own style within a documentary like this, and how you could compliment Sparks’ own quirky aesthetics? And did you feel like any of these ideas were informed by ideas from previous works like Scott Pilgrim or Baby Driver, or are perhaps even informing choices you’re making with Last Night in Soho?
Edgar: Ron and Russell can attest to this, but I mean, there’s probably zero overlap between this and “Last Night in Soho.” For my mental health, both movies coming out this year is good. I will say this though, I feel like if there’s anything that comes from my previous work, I think it’s more the fact that I have a similar sensibility to Sparks. It wasn’t something until maybe something Ron says in the movie about the French New Wave. He said that him and Russell liked Jean-Luc Godard because he could make movies and comment on making movies. I feel that Sparks do that on record, the song craft is totally sincere and they’re really serious about what they’re doing, but that doesn’t stop them from having fun with the form. So as artists, they were the perfect documentary subject for me, because I can approach it in that same way. I can be really sincere and serious about doing a documentary about Sparks, but sort of have fun with the form at the same time. Because Ron and Russell have such a great sense of humor about themselves and life, it was something that just fit the brief.
There’s also just such a huge visual element to what they do in the album covers and the stage craft, and the music videos, especially with their background and film and graphic design. I felt like I had been gifted the perfect subject matter to do the documentary in this way.
Given the shocking amount of people you interview within the documentary, was there anyone that truly surprised you?
Edgar: The one surprising thing was the people that would agree to do it and then would have an 11th hour kind of change. For example Flea agreed to do it, and then on the day of filming texts me saying “Hey, I’m nervous because I’m not sure I’ve got enough to say.” And then he sat down and just talked for 45 minutes straight! It was amazingly eloquent! I hope I can put more of that on the DVD. There was no right or wrong answer to talk about Sparks. So even if they didn’t have a comprehensive knowledge of the 25 records, they could speak to what Ron and Russell meant to them like a kind of personal essay. That was strong and profound to me. I’d say Beck and Flea really surprised me, and maybe surprised themselves on camera in how they would talk about things.
Russell: And for us, just the breadth of the creative types that Edgar got to speak to in the documentary was just amazing. Because the musicians were one thing, and they were all amazing, and from different kind of areas of pop music. But then also enlisting writers like Neil Gaiman talking about out analyzing album covers, and Mike Myers analyzing lyrics, and even Jason Schwartzman being amazingly entertaining! The varied breadth of creative people was really astounding to us, and it was it was really special!