Saturday, January 30, 2021

Movie Review: The Sparks Brothers (2021)

“In a movie a life can be summed up in a word

It's a useful, dramatic device

In the real world, with real flesh and real blood

One word is never, ever enough” – “Rosebud” by Sparks

Film director Edgar Wright’s first documentary is a labor of love, as man, this dude has a serious love jones for Sparks. He might love them as much as I do. And if you like or love Sparks, then you’ll probably love this film. Nevertheless, a film that truly takes on the entirety of 50+ year, 25 albums (and counting) career of the group helmed by Ron (keyboards/songwriting) and Russell (singing/eventually engineer) Mael may seem a bit much to the uninitiated.

Then again, Sparks has always seemed a bit much to some. Their often theatrical, and sometimes operatic, music, and lyrical concepts that blow up the mundane to epic proportions have overwhelmed the ears of those who want something a bit more...comfortable. Yet as arty and artistic as the Maels may be, they’ve always operated in the pop world, where sometimes their skewed take on the form has managed to find a way to navigate the mainstream.

Wright’s film crackles with the same energy as many of the best Sparks songs. While yes, this is a mix of clips and talking heads, they are seasoned by everything from illustrative stock footage to really cool, made-for-the-film animation. Moreover, the rhythm is pretty constant, so the 144 or so minutes, for the most part, breeze by. And the one time things really slow down, it provides a poignant moment in a movie where I did not go in expecting such emotion.

That moment ties to what’s at the heart of the movie, the persistence of the Maels to succeed with their vision of pop music. The impressive and eclectic roster of musicians, journalists, and other sorts of artists (ex. - Fred Arminsen, Beck, Vince Clarke, Patton Oswalt) who extol various virtues of the group serve to react to the various albums and songs throughout the band’s career, sometimes specifically making note of their influence or meaning. And it’s clear from some of the interviews, the Maels willingness to do things on their own terms was really an inspiration.

As a fan, I was really impressed at some of the photos and footage of the early years of band Wright and his team were able to collect. Seeing part of a live performance of “Girl From Germany” (off of the band’s second album, A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing) was particularly cool. And a number of former band members and collaborators are interviewed, and with perhaps but one exception, they all seem pretty pleased to have played a part in this long-running saga.

So the movie doesn’t really reveal much personal about the Maels, but, as many fans and critics have noted, this adds to the appeal of the band, not so much because of any mystique, so much as it puts their music front and center. While one word can’t sum up Sparks, one thing that fuels the Maels, is the need to create. They found a way to make a living at it, just enough to keep creating, and while this movie specifically celebrates Sparks, in so doing, what it is also celebrating the incredible strength of the creative impulse, and what it can mean to not let it ebb away.

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