The Sparks Brothers review: Edgar Wright tracks the band’s 50-year history
In the opening minutes of Edgar Wright’s documentary The Stimulates Bro, a who’s-who of artists and performers discuss why they like Stimulates, a long-running art-rock band led by bros Ron and Russell Mael. The similarity Beck, Flea, Jack Antonoff, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Mike Myers, Fred Armisen, Patton Oswalt, and Neil Gaiman all promise obligation to the Maels, who for more than 50 years now have actually been taping and carrying out stylish and conceptually complicated tunes, while likewise staying odd sufficient to maintain an air of secret. Towards completion of the introduction, Jason Schwartzman nods to the duo’s mystique by stating he isn’t even sure he wishes to see Wright’s motion picture. He’s stressed that understanding excessive about Stimulates will ruin their magic.
Stimulates come from a subset of musical acts whose fans either share large and ravenous musical tastes, or tend to believe most modern popular song draws. Sparks-lovers have a lot in typical with fans of Frank Zappa, They Might Be Giants, Ween, and Weird Al. Some delight in the finer subtleties of the band’s noise; others value the Maels’ funny bone, which frequently satirizes musical conventions.
The Stimulates Bro need to interest those various type of Stimulates fans — in addition to to folks like Schwartzman, who’d rather not understand how they managed their technique. Wright takes an extensive technique to the band’s profession, going album by album, speaking with partners and advocates in addition to to the Maels. Throughout, Russell and Ron stay rather aloof, maybe by style. They’re more open about their past and their intents here than they’ve ever remained in interviews, however they aren’t ready to distribute all their tricks.
The movie’s rarest product comes early, as the Maels recall at their middle-class boyhood in southern California, as the kids of a Hollywood-adjacent graphic designer who passed away when the bros were still relatively young. That experience enhanced their bond, which they brought with them as they studied movie at UCLA, taking long-lasting motivation from the artier ends of the French New Age. They ended up being regulars at the Sundown Strip rock clubs in the 1960s, in the age of the Byrds and Love. When the Maels began making their own music, they drew attention immediately for tunes integrating retro rock and eccentric experiments, with Russell’s boyishly high however operatically strong voice used to tunes about ladies, eccentric characters, and popular culture itself.
Wright has access to pictures and video from those years that haven’t been commonly seen, considered that Stimulates at that time weren’t precisely super stars. However the doc actually gets steam once it reaches 1973, when the bros relocated to England, created a brand-new support band, and tape-recorded their landmark 3rd album, Robe My Home. The record featured the smash UK hit “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us,” a pounding anthem with elements of prog-rock and glam, two genres dominating Europe at the time. For about three years — until their sales started to dip — Sparks were ubiquitous on British television. So Wright has a lot of great old footage to pull from.
In 1976, the Maels returned to Los Angeles, and for roughly the next decade, their career followed a pattern. Occasionally, one of their songs (like the jaunty New Wave ditties “Cool Places” and “I Predict”) or LPs (like the hugely influential Giorgio Moroder-produced synth-pop album No. 1 in Heaven) would bubble up somewhere close to the mainstream. Sparks were never part of any particular music “scene,” per se, but the band’s sound was often at least adjacent to hip trends, and the bros had fans throughout the industry. (At one point in the doc, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers says that when he first moved to L.A. he assumed Sparks was one of the biggest bands in the business, since they always seemed to be headlining every A-list venue in the city.)
The Maels took advantage of MTV’s arrival to cement their public image: Russell as a shaggy-haired pop-idol type, earnest and performatively vacant, and Ron as a gangly weirdo with a Hitler mustache and cocked eyebrow. Throughout the 1980s, they continued to appear on television a surprising amount for a marginally popular cult act. (Being L.A.-based probably helped. Certainly that’s the best explanation for why they were frequent guests on Dick Clark’s teenybopper dance show American Bandstand.) Yet few interviewers at the time could coax the brothers into revealing much about themselves.
Wright doesn’t have much better luck. The Maels say next to nothing about their personal lives, aside from one brief mention of Russell dating his “Cool Places” duet partner Jane Wiedlin. They say very little about their relationships with their many bandmates over the years, about their impressions of the hundreds of acts they’ve shared bills with since the 1970s, or about their musical philosophies and techniques. We do discover that the brothers meet up almost every day to work together; but we only get the barest glimpses of that process.
In other words, while Sparks fans certainly shouldn’t miss The Sparks Brothers, they likely won’t learn much they don’t already know. Wright’s focus — perhaps necessarily — is more on explaining to newcomers why this oddball act is so beloved. Along with the celebrity testimonials and old TV clips, Wright employs multiple forms of animation, effectively turning the Mael brothers into the abstracted heroes of their own offbeat adventure story. The film portrays Sparks the way many people who love the band see them.
The Sparks Brothers is unusually long for a music documentary, and it’d be a stretch to say that its 140-minute runtime zips right by. Wright avoids one of the common flaws of rock docs, which often peak with their artists’ biggest hits, then compress the remaining decades of their careers into the final 15 minutes. This film goes the distance with Sparks, spending almost as much time on the obscure later albums as the bestsellers. As a result, the movie can feel like an endurance test.
But a subtle narrative flow develops over the course of The Sparks Brothers, thanks to the Maels’ admirable doggedness. Year after year, these boys keep pursuing their goals and refining their sound — whether they’re backed by a major label and scraping the lower reaches of the pop charts, or they can’t convince anyone to release their records. The back half of the doc brings a string of mini-payoffs, as Sparks keeps hopping back into the spotlight: scoring a surprise struck in Europe, playing a string of critically acclaimed shows in London, working on a high-profile movie project, and so on. The band has spent much of the 21st century thus far doing victory laps.
They’ve been making great music, too. Perhaps the real reason Wright dedicates so much time to the later Sparks albums is that those records are, for the most part, excellent. In recent years, the Maels have embraced a style influenced in part by classical music, crunching hard rock and avant-garde theater. It’s at once minimalist and maximalist: simplistic in melody and lyrics but complex in arrangements and instrumentation.
Toward the end of the documentary, the subject turns to “My Baby’s Taking Me Home,” a 2002 Sparks song that mostly consists of the title sung repeatedly for over four minutes. The hook is so catchy that it’s easy to fall under the song’s spell, till eventually the endless repetition begins to suggest some deeper meaning, which listeners feel compelled to ponder. That compulsion defines what it’s like to be a Stimulates fan. And it’s a feeling The Stimulates Brothers replicates, over and over.
The Stimulates Bro opens in theaters on June 18, 2021.
Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.