This year, Sparks celebrate half a century as America’s ultimate cult band — a group with a discography marginally less daunting to newcomers than Frank Zappa’s. None of the nearly two-dozen studio records they’ve released since ditching the admittedly terrible name Halfnelson sound alike (are they glam? pop? prog? new-wave? orchestral rock? synth-rock? rock-rock?), and their perfidious genre-hopping has hopelessly stunted the Southern California group’s popularity in their home country. One moment, founders Ron and Russell Mael sound like Roxy Music if Brian Eno tried on Bryan Ferry’s suit for a night; the next, they’d approximate Kraftwerk caught between radio frequencies on European borders. They’ve written baroque glam like “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth,” Italo-disco (with Giorgio Moroder) like “La Dolce Vita,” and new-wave (with the Go-Go’s Jane Wieldin) on “Cool Places.” They have even written “The Number One Song in Heaven.”
But for as commercially unsuccessful as Sparks have been, they’re nevertheless one of the most instantly recognizable duos, thanks to singer Russell’s good looks and his brother, keyboardist Ron’s possessed-doll act and intricate mustaches. Over the years, he’s rocked soup strainers similar to Charlie Chaplin (or Adolph Hitler), Little Richard (or John Waters), Clark Gable (or Walt Disney). Ron has such an identifiable look that Paul McCartney once parodied him in a music video. But not even a Beatle’s support could catapult them into the Top 10 outside of the U.K. and Europe.
The question of who Sparks are, and why they never broke out in a larger way is central to the new documentary The Sparks Brothers. Filmmaker Edgar Wright (Baby Driver, Shaun of the Dead) gathered a large cabal of Sparks’ famous fans — Beck, Flea, Björk, Mike Myers, “Weird Al,” two Duran Durans, Todd Rundgren, Jack Antanoff, and many others — and a few not-so-famous fans, and paired their observations with those of the Mael brothers for an in-depth, sometimes too exhaustive recitation of the Sparks story. It turns out, the reasons why Sparks never caught on are about as complicated as one of their songs.
The Maels explain themselves by saying they never felt much need to bow to the pressures of hit making or the pop-music industry — other than firing the rest of Halfnelson, changing their name to Sparks, and moving to London after their debut album tanked. The Sparks Brothers shows how they started out like any other band of baby boomers, admiring Bill Haley in Blackboard Jungle and dreaming of having moves like Jagger (or Roger Daltrey). Rundgren took a chance on them and produced Halfnelson in 1971, and a few years later, they made it onto England’s Top of the Pops with a new name and a trimmer lineup. “To betray the other people was a really difficult thing, but also knowing that being a British band was a lifetime dream of ours. … ” Ron says at one point, his anecdote trailing off because obviously they wanted to be British rock stars.
The film tells their story chronologically, album by album, singling out notable songs with commentary from their admirers and a mix of archival footage, photo montages, Claymation, and sharp-looking graphics. When the Maels recall a time when Russell threw a sledgehammer into the air (a move Daltrey would be too smart for) and it subsequently smashed his face, Wright animates it with clay blood dripping from the singer’s head. And when they talk about the albums and their cover art (and Sparks always had great cover art, especially the sleeves for Propaganda and Angst in My Pants) he presents full photoshoots, flipbook style.
Much of the commentary throughout is as funny and clever as a Sparks song. Simon Pegg does a great impression of John Lennon apocryphally describing them as “Marc Bolan … playing a song with Adolph Hitler,” and Franz Ferdinand frontman Alex Kapranos recalls how after Sparks approached him with the idea of joining their bands together: “Ron in his typically perverse way, he sent over [a song called] ‘Collaborations Don’t Work.'” “One of the reasons why Sparks isn’t the biggest band in the world is ’cause they’re fucking funny,” Flea opines, and “Weird Al” concurs, “I don’t know why [music in general] has to be so stinkin’ serious.”
And on that note, the doc sometimes lets Sparks down in its near sycophantic sincerity. Other than the duo’s allergies to commercial success, the Maels have kept to the straight and narrow. They never got into drugs or alcohol, never got caught up in Behind the Music–worthy scandals. So the only real moments of drama are when they recall potential film-project collaborations by Jacques Tati and Tim Burton falling through, and the period between 1989 and 1994 when no record label would touch them. Christi Haydon, Sparks’ drummer from ’94 to ’96, cries when remembering that era. For their part, the Maels laugh it off — after all, their sense of humor echoes through “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way,'” “When I’m With You,” and “The Number One Song in Heaven” — and say they were happy to have saved some money.
The film also suffers from a nearly two-and-and-a-half–hour runtime, likely because Wright is such a fan that he didn’t want to leave anything out. As with many rockumentaries, the picture reaches a logjam in its final third as it gives as much (if not more) importance to Sparks’ latter-day experiments as their early breakthroughs. For casual fans whose heads are still spinning from the band’s many about faces, there’s an information overload by the time the Maels start cracking jokes during the credits. And really, why should a music doc — any music doc — run longer than Raging Bull?
Ultimately, though, The Sparks Brothers makes a strong case for the duo’s musical greatness. Talking about the song, “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’,” Kapranos observes that “the irony is I don’t think Ron or Russell want to be either Sinatra or Sid Vicious; they just want to feel as famous.” The doc gives them their 15 minutes (and then some). For people still wondering where to start with the group, the picture offers 25 starting points with its capsule overviews of the band’s albums. And for anyone still confused by Sparks and their music, they can watch Ron’s mustaches change.