In many respects, Edgar Wright choosing Sparks — aka Ron and Russell Mael — as the subject for his first documentary film is entirely unsurprising. The director and his subjects share much: namely, an obsession with music only matched by an obsession with cinema; a wonky wit. The director himself was captured after seeing them on Top Of The Pops at the age of five.
Determined, you sense, not to make a run-of-the-mill documentary for a band who are anything but, Wright disrupts the linear storytelling that forms the film’s foundation — built from almost 100 hours of talking-head interviews with the likes of Vince Clarke, Björk, Beck, Flea, Patton Oswalt and the brothers themselves. There’s a ‘visual puns’ section; papier-mâché stop-motion; an FAQ opening that includes the questions, “Are you a real band?”, “Are you identical twins?” and, “What is your sexual persuasion?”
As the film itself states, this is intended to be a “window into the psyche” of the Mael brothers. Two artists who most of the world know very little about, who are driven by imagination and creativity over commerciality (yes, these two things are linked). Who produce ‘art for art’s sake’, rather than for cold-hard cash or the warm glow of fame. Who much of the time — with that raised dead-pan eyebrow, that ‘Hitler’ moustache and those absurd lyrics — leave you wondering: are they just taking the piss?
This does inevitably kill the traditional rise and fall (and usually rise again) narrative. In its place is a diligent album-by-album approach and the often-intriguing, sometimes-frustrating, frequently-funny story of a band who — as they refuse to be judged by traditional values or metrics — can never truly be deemed a success or a failure. Who happen to be both hideously underrated and hugely influential.
Wright’s exuberance and passion keeps you compelled for the length of the run-time.
Those expecting any moments of huge revelation or introspection — Behind The Music style — will be left wanting (there are next to no personal details), but there are moments of poignancy in among the madness: sadness at their father’s death when they were both young boys; the pain and disappointment of spending six (wasted) years on Tim Burton’s failed Mai, The Psychic Girl film.
Wright carefully, forensically, cuts just deep enough into the Sparks psyche and mythology to make you feel satisfied, while recognising that their mystique is part of that magic. And that spell shouldn’t be broken with a too-heavy hand.
There is a lot of ground to cover — five decades, 25 albums, Christ knows how many genres, line-ups and reinventions — and the film does hit an almost-indulgent 141 minutes. But as well as a mind-twisting fascination with the Mael brothers, Wright’s exuberance and passion keeps you compelled for the length of the run-time. He even turns the camera on himself as an interviewee (with the caption “fanboy”). The result isn’t so much a love letter as the director opening his chest and laying his Sparks-heavy heart out for the world to inspect.