Sparks, the musical unit invented and fronted by Ron and Russell Mel, is sometimes RockSometimes pop, sometimes art song, always unmatched. They are a cult band with an ever-renewing cult and a career that spanned 50 years. “The Sparks Brothers”, an energetic documentary directed by Edgar Wright, explains their appeal by emphasizing how it cannot be explained.
The image of Sparks is one of contrasts. In the 1970s, lead singer Russell’s slim physique, bouncy hair and matinee-idol face made him major rock star “snack” material. Resting on a keyboard was Ron, the lyricist brother, Hazy and Pale, whose mustache is drawn inconveniently between Charlie Chaplin and Hitler. Then came out Russell’s mouth—an arc falsetto that can cause a dog to wince, singing about Albert Einstein and breast milk (not in the same song), precision-instrumented guitar riffs and baroque lyrics. On structures that develop both a Bach and a calliope.
“I thought they didn’t really exist,” says musician Nick Hayward, recalling his surprise when he saw them on the street. “The Sparks Brothers” personifies the two who grew up in California, despite their Euro-vibe. Russell was also a high-school quarterback. Their loving father, an artist, instilled in the boys a love of both film and music. He died when Ron was 11 and Russell was 8.
Wright, ‘Shaun of the Dead’ virtuoso director and “Baby Driver” among others, and an ace soundtrack assembler, is uniquely suited to create this tribute. Both the director and the band take pleasure in formal drama. His eccentricity doesn’t turn off honesty entirely.
Regarding sex, the brothers remain relatively silent, though there is still a bit of mutual polite-bragging by the friendly ex when the subject of Russell’s short-lived romance with Go-Go’s own musical collaborator Jane Vidlin comes up. As far as drugs were concerned, he stayed away. Rock ‘n’ roll initially inspired him, but it’s something he now has an arm’s length relationship with, because in its purest form it’s not entirely hospitable to Sparks’ particular brand of irony.
Does the film smack too much on the love of a contemporary figure? It is possible. But even contributions from arguably the wild card – Jason Schwartzman, Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, Neil Gaiman – are relevant.
The Sparks Brothers
Rated R, inexplicably. Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes. in Theaters.