[SXSW Review] ‘THE SPARK BROTHERS’ – Edgar Wright’s electric style benefits story of art pop legends


James Clay // Film Critic


Rated R, 140 minutes.
Director: Edgar Wright
Cast: Ron Mael, Russell Mael, Flea, and Fred Armisen

Playful yet profound, funny, and a little frivolous, this is the essence of genre filmmaker Edgar Wright’s documentary THE SPARKS BROTHERS. Taking the film from a fan’s perspective presents the cult pop duo Sparks with glee for those who loved the band throughout the decades of coming and going on the music scene.

Several famous talking heads pop up throughout the entirety of the film. People like Jason Schwartzman, Fred Armisen, Beck, and Flea discuss how they discovered and rediscovered Sparks over the years. Saying things to the effect of, “Oh, these guys are still around?” and then proceeding to tell a story about how the music of Ron and Russell Mael has been touchstones in their lives. (The best comes from Schwartzman.)

Wright pulls at several threads through the entirely too long 140-minute documentary. The idea of repeatedly reinventing yourself, celebrating outsider art, and not taking the work you do (creative or otherwise) too seriously are all touched upon but not gone into with any meaningful depth.

This documentary will be an introduction to the Sparks empire for many (including this reviewer) and a compendium for fans of Russel (vocals) and Ron Mael’s (keys) lengthy discography that runs the gamut of dates of the late 1960s to 2017. Wright presents the Mael brothers as strange and distant interview subjects. But with a curveball that immediately invites the audience into their peculiar headspace. Russell and Ron, now in their 70s, have an artsy and hip aesthetic that encapsulates the brothers’ need to keep progressing, stay moving. Through playful banter, Wright breaks down the barriers to get to the heart and charm behind Russell’s boyish good looks and Ron’s static look that’s somewhere between Charlie Chaplin and the STOP MAKING SENSE era of David Byrne.

Through personal anecdotes about childhood losses and seeing The Beatles live, Wright peels back the mystery and allows his signature fast-paced style to be a big open-hearted hug for fans and newbies alike. THE SPARKS BROTHERS focuses on pleasing existing fans. But thanks to Wright’s storytelling skills, he successfully invites viewers into the prolific brothers’ world. In the 1950s Los Angeles, the brothers occupied a version of American suburban life that they would come to satirize in their art. According to Wright, Russell and Ron have always known who they are but never knew who they were going to be–that notion has never changed.

From a revolving door of changing styles, the brothers never responded to the culture; they wanted to take a proactive approach to their music and art. The exciting thing about a director with a fervent fanbase like Edgar Wright taking on a subject close to his heart is seeing the curtain pullback on artists’ inspirations. While Wright’s film isn’t about the nature of fandom or outsider art, it directly links to him being a more relatable storyteller. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t go a little overboard with the runtime, as there are large pockets of the film that are repetitive as some of Sparks’s lyrics. The tonal rhythms of Wright’s work like music at times, but without a break from the constant onslaught of needle drops, the beat goes on too long (a problem that came up in BABY DRIVER as well).

THE SPARKS BROTHERS is unmistakably an Edgar Wright film with heart, groovy music pieces that come out like a never-ending firehose of art-pop. Ron and Russell Mael seem like nice enough guys and have managed to stay relevant with an upcoming screenplay, the musical ANNETTE (starring Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver and directed by French weirdo genius Leo Carax). These brothers are the forever evolving men, and at least for a couple of hours, it’s fun to hop into their orbit.

Grade: B

Focus Features has picked up the distribution for the film and will released it on June 18.

About author

James C. Clay

James Cole Clay has been working as a film critic for the better part of a decade covering new releases, blu ray reviews and the occasional drive-in cult classic. His writing is dedicated to discovering social politics through diverse voices, primarily focusing on Women In Film and LGBTQ cinema.