The Sparks Brothers

The Sparks Brothers starts badly, very badly. A line-up of talking heads use pretty much the same language to explain why they think that Sparks are great. Your heart sighs. Is this going to be one of those films which believes that, just because someone is famous (or, in many cases, an actor or comedian who I’ve never heard of – though that may say more about me than them), anything that they have to say is perforce interesting?

To a degree it is. As the film progresses, people with varying levels of fame are wheeled on to explain that Sparks were so good because they didn’t care what anyone thought. It’s not just that this “insight” is humdrum the first time you hear it, nevermind the tenth. It also just isn’t true. There are plenty of bands who didn’t care that audiences thought they were shit. The problem was, in most cases, the audience was right.

There is also some very heavy fisted directing. Apparently there are people out there who rate Edgar Wright, and it does take all sorts to make the world. But some of the shots are horrendously literal. When someone talks about music evolving, we see a butterfly coming out of a cocoon. When someone else talks about a dinosaur, we see, a, er dinosaur. Fortunately, the longer the film goes on, the less Wright feels compelled to use these crude devices.

There are other positives. The talking heads are not universally terrible. It’s kind of audacious to ask for the opinion of Nick Heyward and various Durannies, rather than anyone who today’s kids have heard of. And Alex Kapranos – whose band Franz Ferdinand did an album with Sparks (first release: “Collaborations Don’t Work”) – is surprizingly perceptive.

Instead of bland clichés that Sparks didn’t care about fame, Kapranos refers to their song “When Do I Get to Sing My Way” (sample lyric: “So when do I get to sing My Way. When do I get to feel like Sinatra felt / So when do I get to do it my way. When do I get to feel like Sid Vicious felt”) as showing that they really did want to be respected in the same way that Sinatra and Vicious in their different ways were, yet they were always overlooked.

But what the saves the film – indeed what makes it great – are two things. First, the music is marvellous, even as it moves through a wide variety of styles. Each of the different incarnations of Sparks was, if not universally brilliant, at the very least constantly interesting. The songs were not universally great, but they were generally memorable.

And what a range of incarnations there were. We see them as 1960s band halfnelson, whose songs included a cover of The Kinks’ David Watts, a Roxy-music type Glam band, a Giorgio Moroder collaborating disco group, the prototype pretty singer and bored keyboard player that spawned a thousand 80s bands, emulators of Steve Reich up to the recent revival.

As well as their musical output, Sparks were ambitious in other artistic fields. We hear of failed film projects with Jacques Tati and Tim Burton, the collaboration with Leos Carax which actually happened, and – less impressive artistically – their appearance in the disaster movie Rollercoaster, where the disaster was that the film was ever made. And while they were thinking of Nouvelle Vague films, they were churning out silly little lyrics to a disco beat.

The other thing that makes the film memorable is the note perfect double act of Ron and Russell Mael, the brothers who form the core of Sparks. The one in the Hitler moustache and the pretty boy. The socially awkward one who wrote lyrics about not being able to get the girl, which were sung by the one who looked like he could get any girl he wanted. Ron’s shifty sideways glances and raised eyebrows are doubly hilarious next to Russell’s compelling glamour.

The Sparks Brothers doesn’t just remind you how many fantastic songs Sparks released, but how difficult it was to get hold of them. I have spent way more time than is healthy hanging around in record stores, and yet I didn’t even recognise the covers of over half the 25 albums that Sparks produced. I can think of no other band for whom this is true, particularly not one whose songs have soundtracked my life, whose records I’ve bought, who I’ve seen in concert.

There is much more to say, particularly around the playful sense of fun around many of the lyrics. But telling these stories will slightly spoil the film. Every few minutes, a new lyric comes up and you’re speechless in awe at how it is both clever and cheeky. Maybe it’s their mastery of irony that explains why many of their fans thought they must be British and couldn’t be from Southern California.

The Sparks Brothers is badly directed, it’s way too long, has too many “famous” people uttering fatuous statements … and despite all this, it’s absolutely bloody brilliant.

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