Hot Docs Review: 'The Sparks Brothers' Brings Much-Needed Humour to the Rock Doc Genre Directed by Edgar Wright
Starring Ron Mael, Russell Mael, Beck, Flea, Jack Antanoff, "Weird Al" Yankovich, Mike Myers, Patton Oswalt, Fred Armisen, Todd Rundgren, Jason Schwartzman, Scott Aukerman
Published Apr 27, 2021Sparks are musicians' musicians — the kind of band who get talked about in hushed tones by their peers and devoted admirers, but are largely ignored by the general public. True heads know.
The Sparks Brothers doesn't so much try to get Sparks the attention they deserve as it celebrates them for being exactly as they are. Director Edgar Wright clearly adores the brother duo of Ron and Russell Mael, and much of this 140-minute documentary focuses on the ways Sparks have torpedoed their own chances at true stardom by making truly weird music that's frequently out of step with commercial trends.
Wright assembles an impressive cast of musicians (Beck, Flea, Jack Antonoff), comedians (Mike Myers, Patton Oswalt, Fred Armisen) and collaborators (Todd Rundgren, Giorgio Moroder, Tony Visconti), plus a veritable army of past and present band members, to discuss the Maels' wacky, poignant and prolific output.
As you'd hope from the lineup of comic A-listers, The Sparks Brothers is far funnier than your average music doc. The Mael brothers have quick wits and great comic timing; plus, their stage presence is inherently funny, as handsome frontman Russell hams it up while the more awkward Ron deadpans into the nearest camera with a Hitler moustache. They sing over the opening credits, with dramatic choral harmonies and lyrics like "documentary film fanfare!" and "Edgar Wright film fanfare!" setting the tone for a movie that's reverent but not too self-serious.
Wright throws in a few jokes of his own: when iconic producer Tony Visconti appears on-screen, his credit reads "producing legend and amateur photographer," while Wright himself is credited simply as a "fanboy."
If The Sparks Brothers has a weakness, it's that Wright perhaps devotes a little too much of these near-two-and-a-half hours to documenting every single album, stylistic detour and oddball project in Sparks' long career. The Maels are purposefully private, but the best parts of the film are when they crack jokes and let their personalities shine. The story drags a bit through the late '80s through the '90s.
Then again, perhaps Wright is simply repaying the Mael brothers in kind: with a retrospective that's as exhaustive and detailed as Sparks' own music. Whether you're a true Sparks head or a curious newcomer, The Sparks Brothers adds some spark to the "prestige rock doc" genre.
Hot Docs runs online from April 29 to May 9, 2021. Get more information at the festival's website. (Focus)