Sundance London 2021

The Sparks Brothers review – infectious crash course in a seminal band

Edgar Wright proves himself to be the perfect match for a charming documentary about one of pop music's most enduring duos

Every iconic band has a specific “golden age,” where they were at the height of their critical and commercial powers – but not Sparks. In a career spanning more than 50 years, brothers Ron and Russell Mael have kept returning from irrelevance to a new wave of popularity, the cult band’s latest wave cresting in a couple of top ten albums, their very own big screen musical directed by Holy Motors’ Leos Carax, and this loving documentary tribute, courtesy of Edgar Wright.

The Sparks Brothers is an exhaustive account of the duo’s career, told with the infectious enthusiasm of a fanboy insisting you listen to his favourite band. It’s hard not to see why the director would be such an evangelist for Sparks; when “Weird Al” Yankovic (one of eighty famous admirers Wright interviewed for the film) insists Sparks had a hard time finding initial acclaim because of their deliberately comical lyrics, you can imagine Wright  – a filmmaker working primarily in comedy – sharing those same frustrations. As such, this is a winning marriage of band and director, the finished product as much a celebration for pre-existing fans as it is the ideal introduction for newcomers.

Wright has previously stated that he never intended to make a music documentary, only signing onto the project after the director Phil Lord convinced him he’d be the perfect filmmaker to tell their story, something Sparks agreed with – the duo have turned down several documentary offers over the years, but jumped at the chance to work with him.

It's clear this is a first attempt at documentary filmmaking, relying heavily on talking heads and archive footage to chart a career that goes all the way back to the 1960s. But what talking heads! Titans from the world of music (legends ranging from Beck to Björk), comedy (Mike Myers, Fred Armisen) and everybody in-between (Neil Gaiman is a massive Sparks fan?) all emerge eager to wax lyrical about one of their favourite bands.

What The Sparks Brothers lacks in innovation, it makes up for in pure charm, finding surprising warmth in a band synonymous with a cynical, deeply ironic sense of humour in their music. While many fans liken the distance between the band and their stage personas to artists like David Bowie, Wright's approach proves to be a great starting point for newbies – a warm overview of Sparks' music that doesn’t fully reveal what’s under their otherworldly facade.

There are a few moments where Wright challenges himself as a filmmaker, with several sequences giving a tantalising glimpse of what an Edgar Wright-directed animated feature could look like. But for the most part, this is a conventional documentary about a joyously unconventional pop duo. Carax's upcoming Annette may be more evocative of their anarchic spirit, but one suspects that film will prove more rewarding after experiencing this crash course.

The Sparks Brothers is showing at the Sundance Film Festival London 2021 from 29 July. It will be released in UK cinemas on 29 July.

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