It seems like that one of the perks that comes with your Successful Film Director badge is the opportunity to occasionally make a documentary about anything you like, more often than not a niche personal interest of some sort: James Cameron has done a couple about deep-sea exploration, Peter Jackson seems to have an interest in military history (particularly aviation), Shane Meadows did one about his favourite band, and so on. You can see why these sorts of projects get the green light: documentary features are usually a tricky sell and putting the name of someone popular on them helps to offset that.
Edgar Wright is the latest to have a go and the subject of his film is effectively given away by the title, The Sparks Brothers – the fact that this is a title which the siblings in question supposedly loathe gives you a reasonably good sense as to the general tenor of the piece, which is playfully deadpan and carefully absurd.
These may sound like odd choices for a documentary, but then this is a documentary about the rock band/pop group/synth duo/trio Sparks, or more specifically the Mael brothers, who have been the core of the enterprise for half a century now. Movies celebrating groups or bands or individual artists like this one usually start with a section where a selection of celebrity admirers come on and try to explain just how wonderful, accomplished, pleasing to the eye and generally deserving the subjects are. It perhaps says something about the essential nature of Sparks that even their most passionate devotees, given this opportunity for fulsome praise, still end up describing the duo as 'an anomaly', and offering thoughts such as 'they would make good Muppets' and that they look less like a band than people on day release from some kind of institution.
This seems rather unfair to younger brother Russell, who is the vocalist and front man for the band, and seems an engaging and personable chap, but may well be a fair description of elder Mael Ron, whose angular, threatening, slightly predatory stage presence – coupled to a dress sense which is interesting, to say the least – is one of the things the band is most famous for. There's a famous, probably apocryphal story about John Lennon seeing Sparks' first Top of the Pops appearance and phoning up Ringo Starr to tell him he'd just seen Marc Bolan performing a song with Hitler.
That song was 'This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us', the 1974 single which is probably the only thing a lot of people can remember about Sparks. This was certainly the case for me: I was only vaguely aware of them beyond this one record, and was entirely in the dark about the twenty-plus albums and hundreds of songs they've recorded in a half-century career.
Happily, Wright and his film are here to provide some illumination into the Sparks opus, and do so at potentially exhausting length: there's some background on the siblings (they are native Californians, hence the line that Sparks is 'the best British band ever to come out of America'), including – courtesy of what must have been some ferocious research – footage of them as teenagers in the audience of a Beatles gig. Then the film covers the coming together of their first band Halfnelson, later renamed Sparks in a slightly perplexing marketing exercise.
From then on, every album is discussed, along with the brothers' various peregrinations, reinventions, changes of style, and other projects. It is such an odd story – at one point they were going to make a film with Jacques Tati, at another they spent literally years working on an adaptation of a Japanese manga to be directed by a young Tim Burton – and essentially that of two men driven to follow their muse rather than any kind of commercial instinct. Former Sparks drummer Christi Haydon is reduced to tears as she recalls the brothers' longest period in the commercial wilderness (in the late 80s and early 90s) and the fact that they continued to write and produce music on a virtually daily basis throughout this period.
One question the film doesn't directly address is that of how a band can be so prolific and massively influential and yet remain so little known. (Wright makes the reasonable suggestion that every synth-pop duo with a flamboyant singer and a rather less demonstrative keyboard player are basically ripping off Sparks' act, albeit usually with less wit.) The closest it comes is the suggestion that the whole essence of Sparks is an exercise in irony and the deconstruction of cliché – it's usually impossible to tell whether the brothers are taking something deadly seriously or quietly sending it up; they may in fact be doing both at the same time. Their single Music You Can Dance To is an arch parody of vacuous commercial dance-pop, but at the same time it's a banging example of the form at its best. Other songs reveal the same dry sense of humour or a willingness to completely tear up the usual norms of pop music – the lyrics to My Baby's Taking Me Home are basically just the title, repeated seventy or eighty times in a row.
Wright manages to suffuse the movie with the same kind of deadpan artiness, including animated sequences and a droll section where Ron and Russell enact various metaphors – the suggestion that Sparks push the envelope of conventional pop music is accompanied by a clip of them pushing an envelope back and forth, and so on. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are exceptionally good value as interviewees, in a film which is not short on people willing to come on camera and sing their praises – various musicians, actors, writers and fans all turn up.
The Sparks legend is largely based on the duo retaining an aura of mystique, which the film duly respects – we learn virtually nothing about their private or personal lives, beyond the fact that Russell once had a brief entanglement with Jane Wiedlin and that Ron has a large collection of snow-globes. Even so, the brothers appear at one point and admit their concerns on this front, attempting to remystify themselves by sharing some rather dubious Sparks facts – Russell is apparently a NASCAR driver in his spare time, while Ron writes spy thrillers under the pseudonym John le Carre (a joke which seems a bit tasteless now but wasn't at the time of filming).
Two hours and twenty minutes is a long duration for this kind of film, but it trips along very enjoyably: as ever, you almost wish they stopped to play some of the songs in full. (Still, I suppose we have the internet for this sort of thing now.) It really succeeds as a funny, engaging and warm film, and also as a documentary. I went to see it on the strength of the trailer and Edgar Wright's track record, really knowing very little about the band, and I came out actually loving them a bit. Consider me a convert.