Edgar Wright introduces the world to “The Sparks Brothers” in insightful and often comical music documentary


Focus Features

Dan Buffa, Special to the Jewish Light

Did you know of a band with 50 years of experience, hundreds of songs, and 25 albums that is beloved by the band you love the most? If you didn’t answer with “The Sparks Brothers,” I don’t know what to say except follow me into my review of Edgar Wright’s intuitive documentary about their quiet yet assured rise in the music industry, a run that continues to this day.

What kind of music did they produce during a place and time where 10 other bands were putting together similar sounds? Well, if you sat back and thought of a Euro-pop band with a sound that really reminded you of… well, nothing. That’s what set Russell and Ron Mael (whose father was of Russian-Jewish descent) apart; their music, a collection of oddities that somehow melded into a cosmic rhythm of musical pleasure, didn’t have a companion. If I took anything away from Wright’s entertaining and often comical retrospective, it’s that there are people out there doing amazing things that have yet to come to our attention.

I don’t consider myself a music aficionado, but I like to think great music doesn’t slip by me often. But just like 2012’s “Searching for Sugar Man,” although with less emotional resonance, Wright’s intimate yet informal look behind the curtain of two men who found themselves linked to a man named Hitler far too often. The reason being Ron’s look including a tiny little mustache and death stares that were quietly reflexive glimpses of his inner turmoil.

The Maels had it rougher than most, losing their father at a young age and instead forming this immovable unit with their mother. Those are the unfortunate vines that great music grows on. A certain kind of pain that doesn’t bear a genre, only a sound. That’s what “The Sparks Brothers” conquered early on: creating a sound that few others could dare even dream about putting together. While it’s not my preferred blend of tunes (give me the rock n’ roll dialed to 95), it’s hard to resist the rapture that these brothers created with their songs.


Let’s put it this way. Before I hit “play” on this one, I had zero idea who “The Sparks Brothers” were. I went to school with a musician named Joe Sparks, one who plays on to this day. But outside of that one-man show, the name hit the floor. Once I finished the film and absorbed Wright’s perspective as the credits played, I knew that forgetting their music would be impossible.

It came from their soul, something they never compromised in their career, which took its twists and turns. Between being this close to a film before the director caught bad health or just became disinterested (hint: he directed a Batman movie back in the 80s) to seeing their most cherished songs fail to reach the desired audience, “Sparks” took their fair share of shots. For better or worse, the film doesn’t leave much out, packing in childhoods and older life (filled with ritual!) into a single film.

While I could trim 20 minutes off the running time, the need to think about became less as the final scene played. What also sets this film apart (while reminding me of “Sugar Man”) is the usage of inventive animation blended with real life events. It brings the story in closer with the visual touches that never border on indulgence. In order to truly understand what these two guys were all about, you needed a go-for-broke form of an artist like Wright.

When he’s not making exciting movies such as “Baby Driver” and taking challenges, he’s off making passionate music documentaries about the last band I would have picked for the subject mantle. But it’s his ability to turn me on my head, flipping the expectations and absorbing his film two days later. This being Wright’s first foray in the land of documentarians should clue you in on how special this band is to him, and so many others.

I won’t anoint “The Sparks Brothers” the documentary of the year award just yet, but it’s a very well-done exploration of how organic music, one carrying a signature sound, can manage to stand out and remain a secret weapon all at once. The biggest takeaway from the movie for me is not how much you like or dislike the music; their story is what makes this one special. It’s earned, candid, and a reminder of how the industry gives less than half the amount that it takes away.

But Ron and Russell Mael couldn’t be dismayed at how their life turned out. As countless musicians will tell you, from Beck to Duran Duran, their music was the pipeline on which so many different types of music were built. They’re like the pitching coach that every great pitcher talks about, yet most fans don’t even know of. You can’t count how far their reach goes, because so many different writers and singers have soaked in the relentless ambition of two guys who refused to not do things their way.

That should be celebrated.