Having good things align has never really been part of Sparks’ legacy during the sibling duo’s 50-year recording career. So brothers Ron and Russell Mael are bemused, amused and gleefully taken aback by the spotlights shining on Sparks from different directions right now.
The Sparks Brothers, a documentary by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), hits theaters on Friday (June 18) after a lauded opening at the Sundance Film Festival during January. Annette, the Maels’ long-awaited movie musical directed by Leos Carax and starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, is slated to open the 2021 Cannes Film Festival on July 6. The Maels collaborated with Todd Rundgren, who produced their first album (as Helfnelson) in 1971, on “Your Fandango,” out now as a single and slated for Rundgren’s next album. Add to that plans for a tour in the near future and a new album in the making, and the stars are seemingly aligning for the art-pop duo.
“It’s ironic the timing of things — especially when, with the pandemic, everything got screwed up for everybody’s planning,” Russell Mael tells Billboard via Zoom. “All these things have come together at the right time — and ironically because I think part of Edgar’s hope and thesis of the documentary is that what Sparks is doing now is as valid or more valid, artistically and creatively, as anything we’ve ever done.”
Ron Mael adds on the same call that, “Sometimes it seems like music documentaries are sort of the obituary for somebody, even if they’re still alive. We feel just the opposite with this. We feel that it’s jet fuel, and we feel really energized to continue to see how long we can maintain a certain level of artistic purity.”
At a formidable two hours and 20 minutes, The Sparks Brothers certainly makes the case for all things Sparks — a celebration for the cult of devotees the Maels have accrued over the years, including the more than 80 musicians and other celebrities interviewed during the film, and a comprehensive primer for the un- or under-initiated. The Maels, sitting for intimate and illuminating interviews, are complicit in Wright’s cinematic shenanigans, including animations and a film-ending sight gag we won’t spoil here.
“Edgar’s sensibility is similar to ours, so it really was a perfect marriage,” Ron Mael says. “We’ve had other offers to do Sparks documentaries, and we always felt there wasn’t a need, that what we did musically was saying everything we needed to say about ourselves. But Edgar came along and we’ve always loved his films, of course. What he said about wanting to do a documentary and wanting it to be evened out so it wasn’t just nostalgic but the present day would be equally important — all those things were really vital for us.”
The British-born Wright — at 47, decades younger than Ron (75) and Russell (72) — became a Sparks fan early, watching the group perform on Top of the Pops during the late ’70s and subsequently hearing singles on compilation albums his parents used to buy for Wright and his brother. “As a kid I didn’t really understand what I was looking at, other than it was incredibly striking,” Wright recalls. Over time the director and screenwriter has “gone from being curious to properly obsessed,” and in 2015 he wound up befriending the Maels via Twitter, having breakfast together within 24 hours of their first direct message exchange.
It took a couple of years for The Sparks Brothers idea to come into being, however. Wright took The Lego Movie director Phil Lord to see the band perform in Los Angeles, and he began “doing my usual spiel” about the band. “I said, ‘Y’know, the only thing that’s stopping these guys from being as big as they should be and people realizing how influential they are is a documentary. They’re the greatest, most influential band that doesn’t have a documentary about them. I think that would make all the difference,’” Wright says.
“Phil Lord says to me, ‘You should make that movie.’ ‘Yeah, I will!’ and I started talking to (the Maels) about it backstage. If Phil Lord hadn’t called me on it, I might not have said it out loud.”
The Sparks Brothers allows the Maels to share touching memories about their upbringing (their father was a graphic artist and both parents immersed the brothers in pop culture) and studies at UCLA that led to the formation of the band, first as Halfnelson. The film tracks the occasional hits (“This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us,” “The Number One Song in Heaven,” “Cool Places” with Jane Wiedlin), the many near misses and the sometimes whiplash shifts between highs and lows. Most moving, however, are the testimonials, coming from the dizzying assemblage of friends and admirers that includes producers (Todd Rundgren, Tony Visconti, Giorgio Moroder, Muff Winwood) and present and former band members as well as Flea, Beck, Jack Antonoff, the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones, “Weird Al” Yankovic, members of Duran Duran, New Order and Erasure, comics Patton Oswalt and Fred Armisen, and many more.
“Very quickly the idea came together about making it an oral history, to talk to people beyond Ron and Russell — who are obviously incredibly charming and witty interview subjects,” Wright says. “There were some people I just assumed were Sparks fans, and four out of five times I was correct. I would ask Mike Myers or Beck or Flea or Fred Armisen or Neil Gaiman, ‘Hey, you like Sparks, right?’ They’d say, ‘I love Sparks!’ Ron and Russell were sort of dumbfounded when they saw all these people waxing lyrical about Sparks.”
Both Maels say that impact hasn’t worn off. “What surprised us was the varied types of creative people that Edgar enlisted,” Russell Mael notes. “Even in the field of just musicians it was a pretty wide spectrum, from Thurston Moore but then Duran Duran, Flea. And to take it further and have writers we really respect, like Neil Gaiman, and actors. When Edgar said, ‘During the coming week I’m going to interview Mike Myers,’ we were like, ‘Mike Myers?!’ We would not have had reason to expect that Mike Myers would even know who Sparks was let alone say nice things about Sparks.”
Ron Mael adds that, “Y’know, we work in a really isolated fashion, so Edgar has a lot more friends, I suppose you’d say, than we do. So the people that he was able to have speak favorably about Sparks in a documentary was a big surprise to us. We felt in the past there were a lot of closet Sparks fans, so the fact that people like Flea, Jack Antonoff, all these people who we really respect would be so open about praising what we had done… was really special for us.”
Having Rundgren in the film was particularly meaningful for all concerned. He and Sparks had not seen each other in 47 years, and he changed his travel plans in order to do his interview. “I told Ron and Russell and they said, ‘Oh, do you think we should come down and say hi?’,” Wright recalls. “So I basically pulled a This Is Your Life stunt on Todd. At the interview I said, ‘When was the last time you saw Ron and Russell?’ He said, ‘Oh, 1971, 1972?’ I said, ‘What would you say if they were behind that door?’ and he said, ‘Fuck off!’ and then they came in and it was very sweet to see them just get on like a house on fire.” Wright promises that the reunion will be included as bonus footage on the physical release of The Sparks Brothers.
The involvement of some of the many musicians who have played with them over the years was also moving, the Maels say. “We’ve had to sometimes be merciless with other people that we’re working with, if we feel that moving on is something that will further what we’re doing musically,” Ron explains. “So many of the people we worked with in the past, on a personal level we’ve really loved, especially the original version of the band. The fact that so many of those people we kind of wronged in a certain way were really gracious enough to appear in the documentary and say kind words, that meant a lot to us.”
Not only does Wright know more about Sparks now, but his appreciation and, yes, fandom for the band has only been enriched by the project.
“There’s a modesty about Sparks,” he explains. “They’re not trying to create this rock iconography about themselves. They’re perfectly happy to just do the work. Somebody described the film, or their career, as 50 years of left turns. One of the things I wanted to find out was how much of that is willful. That does seem to be the thing that has maybe stopped them from being as mainstream as they maybe could be, but in a weird way that’s ended up meaning they’ve got longevity. If they’d been as big as they maybe should have been in the ’70s, would they still be with us now? Would they still be pushing and doing interesting things? I don’t know, but here they are, and they keep on trucking. It’s incredible.”
And it continues. After years in production, the Maels are stoked about unveiling Annette, which Russell is confident will stand apart from In the Heights, the upcoming West Side Story and other more traditional movie musicals. “I think any comparisons will make it more obvious that this film was done with a different sort of sensibility,” he says. “It’s a drama. There’s no choreography in the traditional sense of movie musical choreography. There’s no song and dance numbers. Most of the dialogue is delivered via music, via the actors singing it. It’s a different take on a how a musical can be done.” And while the Maels are “well into” the next Sparks album, a follow-up to 2020’s A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, they confess to being ready to return to the big screen as soon as possible.
“We so enjoyed doing the Annette project that we have another idea for another film musical,” Ron Mael says. “There’s so much opportunity in the marriage of music and film that hasn’t been fully explored; In our modest way we’d really like to be a part of that revolution. We’re not great schmoozers, but we hope to be able to talk to somebody at Cannes, where people are receptive to our ideas. It doesn’t happen very often, so we want to take advantage of it.”