Ever heard of the band Sparks? If you haven’t, you’re not alone. If you have, it’s not unlikely that they’re one of your favorite bands.
The pop rock duo formed by brothers Ron and Russell Mael has in their five-decade run gained a cult following of some seriously creative people, from Beck and Weird Al to Mike Myers and Amy Sherman-Palladino. And they are the subject of “The Sparks Brothers,” a new documentary from filmmaker Edgar Wright that explores the question of how a band can be “successful, underrated, hugely influential and overlooked all at the same time.” The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival Saturday night.
Wright has been a fan since he first saw them on Top of the Pops in 1979 at age five and said they “kept coming back into his life” in the pre-Internet age of music fandom. Over the years it grew into a bit of an obsession.
“At some point when you’re a fan of a band like Sparks you become a sort of evangelist for them,” Wright said.
He kept toying with the idea of a documentary, thinking that perhaps an overview was the thing that was holding them back from wider fame. Then in 2017 at a Sparks gig, director Phil Lord just told him to do it. That night he asked them if they would be open to the idea.
People had approached the Maels in the past about doing a documentary and they’d always had the same answer: No.
“We’d always been hesitant about the idea of having a documentary for Sparks,” said Russell Mael. “We tend to feel that what we do via our music and the image you have of the band, the album cover artwork and seeing the band, the videos on television, that that speaks better than any document could speak about us.”
Part of the allure of the band is the mystery surrounding them. They worried that a documentary would lessen that. A running misconception is that they’re British. And their Wikipedia page is terrifically confusing. Jason Schwartzman in the documentary even says (mostly in jest) that he’s not sure that he’ll ever watch it because he doesn’t want to learn too much about them. But the Maels were already fans of Wright’s films, which include “Hot Fuzz” and “Shaun of the Dead.”
“It just seemed like it was meant to be,” said Ron Mael. They knew that they were on the same wavelength and had similar sensibilities.
“I’m such a big fan of these guys, I couldn’t let them down,” Wright said.
Wright endeavored to make not just a documentary about Sparks, but to make it feel like a Sparks project as well. It is both utterly sincere and has a sense of humor.
“I’m very passionate about the subject matter and also can kind of make fun of the music documentary at the same time,” Wright said. “(It’s) the sort of thing that Ron and Russell do brilliantly is like write these kind of very profound songs that are also kind of like sometimes seeming to sort of make fun of the art form at the same time.”
Finding famous fans, like Flea, Patton Oswalt, Neil Gaiman and Fred Armisen, to be the talking heads in the documentary wasn’t all that hard either. Some had already said they loved Sparks in the press and some Wright just assumed were fans.
“I was very rarely wrong,” Wright laughed. “People were very willing to talk about it.”
The documentary even provided an opportunity for a reunion. Todd Rundgren, who produced their first album, had not seen the brothers since 1972. When Rundgren came in to do his interview, Wright didn’t tell him that the Maels were also there and did a full “This Is Your Life.” He said if there’s ever a DVD, he’ll put it in the bonus materials.
“Most bands have a golden period and then there’s like a slow, sometimes embarrassing trail off but Sparks were sort of like pushing it further and further and being more ambitious,” Wright said. “They just seem to kind of fly against the trajectory of every other band that have been going that long.”
The film does not yet have distribution, but is expected to sell Sundance which is currently underway virtually through Feb. 3.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr