The Sparks Brothers

A heart-felt tribute to an enduring band that has a devoted cult following.  Directed by Edgar Wright, the movie briefly discusses the Mael brother’s formative years in California before diving headlong into their sixty-year career.  The Sparks Brothers serves as an introduction to the incredible volume of work Sparks has released, twenty-five albums and counting.  The stories detailing the band’s trials and tribulations take on a Spinal Tap quality, with fame and fortune always just out of the band’s grasp.  I walked into this movie knowing a few Sparks songs, and left with a sincere admiration for one of pop music’s genuine craftsmen.  Contrary to what Sparks says, they do not “dick around”.  Recommended.

One of the reasons why I saw The Sparks Brothers (or TSB) was that I wasn’t interested in seeing The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, the big release over Father’s Day weekend.  I hadn’t seen the first installment, so why see the sequel?  Aside from a lack of movie-going choices, I was mildly curious to know more about Sparks.  Who were they, anyway?  I knew a couple of their songs, but nothing else.  And yet they served as the template for many other synth-pop duos I like.  When I’d read that Sparks hadn’t disappeared after 1983 and in fact had been a functioning band ever since, I was intrigued to hear more of their music.  Finally, the documentary was directed by Edgar Wright (Baby Driver).  As you can tell, a combination of factors went into my decision.

As someone who listened to a lot of New Wave music in the Eighties, I was familiar with Sparks.  Back in the day, I used to buy the magazine “Star Hits” to learn about bands. As research for this review, I retrieved my 1986 copy of “Star Hits A-Z” from the basement archive and found this amusing summary:

Hailing from Southern California, Ron and Russell Mael have been making manic, joke-filled pop as Sparks for well over a decade now.  Ron writes most of the tunes, plays rinky-dink keyboards, and looks like Adolf Hitler (or is it Charlie Chaplin?); high-voiced Russell, the cute one, has bragged that he has "no screech threshold", the better to negotiate Ron's giddy melodies.  They've never been big stars much of anywhere except France (?!?), but LPs like Propaganda (1975) and Whomp That Sucker (1981) still sound fresh.

Sparks had a minor hit in 1983 with “Cool Places”, featuring Jane Wiedlin. The song was all right, but the lyrics seemed a bit light, with the phrase “I wanna go” repeated many times. I remember seeing their video for “All You Ever Think About is Sex” on MV3, where keyboardist Ron Mael is pelted mercilessly with cream pies. (I included a link to the video below, if you want to check it out.) Fun fact, my dad was watching the show with me at the time, and verbally agreed with Russ’ sentiment. Talk about awkward.

I’m pretty sure I saw Sparks perform “I Wish I Looked a Little Better” on American Bandstand around this time as well.  (The movie confirmed this distant memory for me.)  After that point, I never heard from Sparks again.  However, other New Wave alternative bands with a keyboardist and a lead singer flourished from in the early Eighties, including Soft Cell (“Tainted Love”), Yaz (“Don’t Go”), Erasure (“Oh L’amour”), Pet Shop Boys (“West End Girls), Naked Eyes (“Always Something There To Remind Me”), Go West (“We Close Our Eyes”), Yello (“Oh Yeah”), They Might Be Giants (“Birdhouse in Your Soul”) and my all-time favorite New Wave band, Eurythmics (“Sweet Dreams”), who changed the formula a bit by having the singer be a woman.  Sparks apparently had their brief moment in the sun and vanished, while other acts took their place and were incredibly successful.  Well, they vanished from US radio at least.  As the movie shows, Sparks were successful outside of the US for several years beyond 1983, eventually  making a comeback in 1994.

As a documentary, TSB is less “behind the music” and more of a career retrospective.  If you’re looking for juicy tidbits about the personal lives of Russ and Ron, TSB will disappoint you.  A few minutes are spent on the Mael brother’s childhood years, where we learn that they are (surprise!) native Californians.  Turns out I’m not the only one who assumed that they were quirky Europeans.  TSB mentions how their father’s artistic nature (he was a painter) and interest in movies was likely an influence on their music.  They mention that his death when they were young boys brought them closer together, a bond which has lasted into their seventies.  (No small achievement when you consider that Ray and Dave Davies are rarely on speaking terms.)

Their mother helped to ferment their appreciation of British rock, driving them to Las Vegas to see the Beatles twice.  The brothers had an affinity for early British rock music, citing The Kinks and The Who as influences.  Given Russell’s extremely high voice, I would have thought Jon Anderson (Yes) or Roger Hodgson (Supertramp) would have been his particular influences.

The Mael brothers first played in a band called Halfnelson way back in 1968  Todd Rundgren (Utopia, Hall & Oates) produced the band’s first two albums, which sold poorly.  The Maels switched music labels and their second album was re-released with the band name “Sparks”. Their record company had originally recommended “The Sparks Brothers”, an allusion to the Marx Brothers.  The brothers hated the name, and convinced the powers-that-be to just use “Sparks”.

After relocating to the UK in the early seventies, Sparks experienced success, but also some bizarre setbacks on the level of Spinal Tap.  They were scheduled to appear on a British music show, but were pulled at the last minute because they didn’t have a musician’s permit.  The band that took their place had a number one hit shortly afterwards.  When Sparks finally gained a following, their record label cut them loose.  The Maels produced two records in New York, neither of which did well, and they went back to California.  Inspired by Georgio Morodor’s work with Donna Summer, they reinvented themselves as a techno pop band, peaking in the US with “Cool Places”.  They released albums steadily until 1988, but then encountered a prolonged dry spell.  For six years, the band was unable to release any albums.  Finally, in 1994, Sparks found international success with the song “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way'”, and have continued putting out albums ever since.

As I mentioned above, TSB doesn’t really delve into the Mael brother’s private life.  One commenter states that the brothers are heterosexual, and Wiedlin confesses to a “brief yet torrid affair” with Russ (her teenage crush).  No mention is made as to whether Russ or Ron are currently married or in a relationship, or whether they have kids.  For most of its duration, TSB focuses mainly on the music Sparks has produced, and the strange turns they’ve experienced through their six decades (!) making music.  In an odd way that the Maels would appreciate, their musical career is just as interesting as the music they’ve created.  Following are just a few interesting tidbits from their history:

  • In 1986, the head of their current record label insisted they write a song that people could dance to.  They did exactly that, and had a dance hit with “Music That You Can Dance To”.  When they confessed that the song was essentially a snarky response to the head of the label, he dropped them.
  • When they were unable to release any music, they put all their chips (their words) on a project with Tim Burton that he pulled out of.  
  • They met Alex Kapranos, lead singer of Franz Ferdinand in the early 2000s and discussed a possible collaboration.  Some ten years later, they walked past him on a street in San Francisco and struck up a conversation, touching on the previously mentioned collaboration.  This led to an album released under the moniker FFS in 2015. 
  • In 2008, to commemorate the release of their twenty-first album, Sparks performed each of their twenty-one albums in full on subsequent nights over a twenty-one day period.  That’s right, a different album each night, every night for three weeks.  I’d never heard of any musical act attempting such a thing.
  • In 2004, they released “My Baby’s Taking Me Home”, a song where the title is sung over and over again.
  • Sparks recorded a song called “Computer Girl” in 1967, predating Kraftwerk.  (The song was not released commercially at the time.)

The artwork used for Sparks’ albums is discussed at length.  As someone who spent a lot of time in my youth looking at album covers, I wasn’t convinced that Sparks did anything that autre.  Kimono My House has the picture of the band and title of the album on the back instead of the front.  Propaganda depicts the band’s abduction in various stages.  The covers are interesting and quirky, but not revolutionary.

Throughout the recounting of Sparks’ trials and tribulations, I never got the feeling that they were angry over not being more successful than they have been.  TSB is extremely diplomatic on that front, with only a commentator taking a small shot at Pet Shop Boys.  The commentator met Neil Tennant once and asked him why he’s never acknowledged the influence Sparks has had on his music.  Tennant supposedly replied “You’re being mean,” and walked off.  Of all the synth-pop duos I mentioned earlier, only Erasure makes an appearance.  I don’t know if the other bands declined to participate, or were never asked.  Maybe they were afraid that if they fessed up to grabbing Sparks’ baton and running off with it, the Maels would show up on set and strangle them.

I’m guessing that the Maels harbor no grudges towards Soft Cell, or Naked Eyes, or any of the countless other bands they’ve inspired.  While Sparks may have created the market for  synth-pop duos, the songs put out by those other bands are nothing like what Sparks has produced.  Pet Shop Boys come closest, but their music is morose and dour where Sparks is playful.  They Might Be Giants come closest lyrically, but their musical leanings are much more avant garde.

If I had to answer why the Mael’s have accepted the slings and arrows from the music industry with such grace, I’d have to say it’s because they have been able to stay craftsmen in a business that values a marketable product over individuality.  Drummer Christi Haydon says that the Maels had saved for rainy days, and I got the feeling that they live comfortably, but aren’t rich.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Sparks’ singular stage presence.  Ron plays the mustachioed villain or foil to Russ’s flamboyant hero.  They seem like characters straight out of movie serials from the Fifties, which makes sense given that they say they were influenced by the days they spent watching serials at the movie theatre with their father.  Many of the (older) commentators in TSB remember seeing Sparks perform on the BBC’s Top of the Pops in 1973, and how much of an impression the Maels made on them.  Whatever you think of their music, the image of Sparks has persisted and never been imitated.

I appreciated the interesting ways director Edgar Wright chose to reenact moments from the band’s past, using a combination of cartoon animation, paper-mache stop motion and claymation.  The cartoons were amusing and worked the best, IMHO.

At two hours and fifteen minutes long, the movie is decidedly overindulgent.  The movie has a lot of celebrity talking heads, many noteworthy, all glad to make an appearance to say how great Sparks are.  If you scan the cast list on IMDB, it reads like a who’s who of the entertainment industry from the last forty years.  But most of the participants don’t say anything insightful or memorable.  I certainly didn’t need to hear from every celebrity Sparks fan that could be put on film (Mike Myers, Weird Al Yankovic, Fred Armisten and many others).  Patton Oswalt is given a lot of screen time, describing the comedic aspect of the band’s music, territory that was echoed by others.  

Same goes for those in the music business who generally like their music (Beck, Nick Heyward, Bjork, Mark Anatoff, etc.).  I didn’t need to hear Flea’s anecdote about seeing a picture of the band on a friend’s wall and puzzling over who they were.  Band members from New Order show up and say how much they like Sparks, but don’t say anything memorable.  Nick Rhodes and John Taylor from Duran Duran looked amused by some private joke, as always.  I’m sure Wright wanted to honor his favorite band by coming up with a top-of-the-line cheering section for them, but the movie didn’t need it and I’m sure the Maels would have been fine without it.

On the other hand, the interviews with people who had played with Halfnelson and Sparks over the years were very interesting.  The recording engineer who worked on the Halfnelson albums quit the music business when the albums didn’t sell, and became a director of commercials.  Christi Haydon tearfully recounts how everyone cried when the Tim Burton project fell apart, and started crying herself over the memory.  The drummer who heard their music and became their drummer several years later, almost by chance.  Producer Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T Rex) describes the time and effort the Maels put into their album Indiscrete, only for it to not sell and their label cutting them loose as a result.  Those stories (and more) are worth the price of admission.

After being snakebit by the movie business time and again, Sparks will finally break through this year with Annette, a movie musical featuring their original music.  I’m glad I saw this documentary beforehand, because I’ll appreciate Annette even more knowing that genuine musical craftsmen were behind it.

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