14 May 21
After over a year without live music or trips to the cinema, a film like The Sparks Brothers couldn't have come along at a better time. A cinematic celebration of a band who have been in the business for five decades, this musical marvel introduces – or reintroduces – Ron and Russell Mael, the brothers behind one of the most quietly influential duos in pop history.
Since forming in 1967, Sparks has released 25 studio albums, toured the world repeatedly and amassed a steady following of loyal fans – including some of the most famous people in the world. Among them is Edgar Wright, the filmmaker behind hits including Shaun Of The Dead, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and Baby Driver, plus the forthcoming Last Night In Soho, to be released this autumn. The Sparks Brothers is his first foray into documentary filmmaking, and sees him bring together Ron and Russell plus a whole host of their famous fans to tell the story of "your favourite band's favourite band". Told with Wright's familiar stylistic flair and sense of humour, the film is an all-singing, all-dancing tour through music history – and like everyone, Wright can't wait to watch it on the big screen.
Absolutely. It was important to make a music documentary about Sparks where it's a celebration for some and an introduction for others. I think there are too many music documentaries that just assume that you know the subject inside out and don't take into account that some people might be learning about them for the first time. I knew that would be the case for Sparks, and that was the key to the whole thing. It's been great having people watch the film and say, "Where have Sparks been all my life?". That's exactly the response I wanted!
I watched Tops Of The Pops as a kid, and remember watching Sparks when I was five years old, doing the single The Number One Song In Heaven. I remember thinking that it was very striking and very visually dynamic, but also, a lot of the musical acts you saw at that time were very smiley and happy, so seeing Ron and Russell staring down the camera, between like, ABBA and The Wombles, felt very odd. My parents used to buy me and my brother these chart compilations and I had these two different albums which happened to have one Sparks track on each, but that's all I had to go on for years. For a long time, the band was a bit of a riddle to me. Later, I'd hear their glam rock phrase, and then in the '90s they were all over the TV with When Do I Get To Sing 'My Way'? looking exactly the same as they had 15 years prior to that. They kept pushing new material that was getting more ambitious as they got older. It seemed to be the exact reverse trajectory of every other long-running band and I thought that was miraculous and extraordinary.
I started to think that Sparks were the best and most influential band that didn't have a film about them and I kept mentioning it – not necessarily the idea of me doing the documentary, but of someone doing one – to friends of mine who are Sparks fans. I was at a Sparks gig with the director Phil Lord in 2017, and I said, 'The only thing stopping Sparks from being as big as they could possibly be is a documentary about them,' and Phil said, 'You should do it!' and I said, 'Yeah, I should do it!' so I pitched it to Ron and Russell that night. As soon as I'd said it out loud, that became a vocal contract. I thought, 'I cannot let my heroes down, I have to make a Sparks film.'
They had turned down previous offers over the years, I think because they weren't really sure if they wanted to tell their story at all, or remain completely enigmatic. I think it was because they already knew me – we'd been friends for a few years – and it was something where they had said no to everybody else until I mentioned it. It wasn't like I was going full-on, making a Nick Broomfield-like searing exposé about them. It was just talking to Ron and Russ, asking the questions I would like to if I was having dinner with them. Hopefully, because they felt relaxed with me it contributed to the finished tone – everyone is just having a good time.
It's fun to me to take these people who are all documentary subjects in their own right and to ask them about one specific thing. I wanted to show the footprint of the band – my plan was to talk to Ron and Russell, find out where they came from, who they liked, why they wanted to make music, and then in tracing their career, meet the people who were fans, some of whom went on to create music that was just as successful or more successful than Sparks. For those people to acknowledge their influence was really beautiful, and I know that Ron and Russ were moved by it, to see people that they didn't necessarily know, like members of Duran Duran or Beck or Flea, talking about them in such loving terms. It was a real eye-opener for them and I think it puts Sparks into context. If you haven't heard of the band, you've definitely heard of some of the people who were influenced by them. For Stephen Morris of Joy Division to say on camera that Love Will Tear Us Apart was inspired by listening to Frank Sinatra's My Way and Sparks' The Number One Song In Heaven – that's a big deal!
Sparks are a very visual band – not only the music itself being very evocative, but their album covers are legendary, and there's a real sense of humour in their work, so it felt like the way to shoot the film was to continue in that spirit. There's also a quote that Ron says about Jean-Luc Godard: 'We like the French New Wave and directors like Godard because he's making a movie but also commenting on making a movie at the same time.' I thought he'd inadvertently described Sparks' approach to music. The way to make the movie was to make a sincere music documentary that's also having fun with the form at the same time.
Absolutely. It means a lot for that to happen. I know Ron and Russ are really eager to see it at the cinema, and to see it large and loud will be amazing. I'm excited to get back to the cinema generally – I was at Picturehouse Central on that last night before it closed in October. When I heard it was closing I texted my brother, 'They're showing Akira on Thursday night, let's go', so I was there! And you know what? I'll come back on the first night it's open in May.
Last Night In Soho and The Sparks Brothers. And maybe the re-release of Scott Pilgrim as well [laughs]. There are lots of things I'm excited about – as a film fan I feel so sorry for the makers of Bond, and Cary Fukunaga is a good friend of mine, so I'm excited to see that. For people who care about cinema like I do, I think that Bond finally being released in cinemas will be a big day.
It's funny because due to the pandemic, we wouldn't have been able to meet our original release date anyway, because we still had some work to do, so in some ways, there was a benefit to the lockdown because we had a chance to finish the movie. You'll see when it comes out – it feels like an autumn film; it's one for when the nights get longer, it's a very nocturnal London experience. I'm just excited for people to see it as intended, and because we haven't released any trailer for it, there's still an element of mystery.
I can give you the tiniest, tiny spoiler – there's one shot in the movie where you pretty much see Picturehouse Central just in the corner of the frame. I hope when it plays in that cinema everyone cheers.
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