Edgar Wright on his new Sparks documentary
Edgar Wright likes Sparks a fair bit. If The Sparks Brothers, his exuberant 140-minute documentary celebrating the genius pop duo doesn't convince you of that, then our chat with the Shaun of the Dead director surely will
The brilliance of evergreen pop eccentrics Sparks cannot be overstated. Edgar Wright makes a good go of it, however, in his latest feature. The Sparks Brothers may well be the most effusive music documentary ever made, with not one of its 140 minutes given to even the mildest criticism of its subjects. Yet it’s easy to share the director’s affection for the band. Since the early 70s, brothers Ron and Russell Mael have proven Zeligs of global pop culture, responding shrewdly to the defining moods of time and place without losing sight of their own idiosyncrasies and distinctive branding. Their quality control has rarely dipped over a 50-year career, and they steadfastly refuse to play the part of a nostalgia act.
After working on this project over a period of two years, Wright’s enthusiasm for the Maels hasn’t dimmed. During our chat with him, we find the director wide-eyed and engaging, approaching his promotional duties as though performing a public service. “If in a nutshell I could say what my aims were for this documentary,” considers the director, “I guess I decided to do it because I thought Sparks should be more famous than they currently are.”
Given Wright’s skill for using music to compelling effect within his films, it’s surprising how long it’s taken for him to champion his heroes. “The reason I haven’t used Sparks’ music in my movies is really a credit to them,” he explains. “There’s not many Sparks songs that sit comfortably in the background. They demand your undivided attention and most of the songs have very specific lyrics that will make you think about the subject of the song rather than what’s in the scene. I know because I tried it once, with Hot Fuzz.
“I tried to put [1974’s near-chart-topper] This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us in that, in the scene where Simon Pegg fights Timothy Dalton in a model village. Obviously, the title of the song fit perfectly, but when I tried to put it in there, I found myself not watching the scene but listening to Sparks.” With mock defensiveness, he adds: “I feel like I’ve atoned for my sin of not putting Sparks in Hot Fuzz by making a movie that has maybe 80 Sparks songs in it!”
These songs variously cover glam rock, baroque pop, primitive hair metal, American MOR, Eurodisco, new wave, synth-pop, opera and Hollywood musicals (Annette, their screen collaboration with Leos Carex has just opened Cannes to great acclaim). However, it’s the brothers’ use of visuals that proves most likely to captivate the average moviegoer. “Once you start to delve into their aspirations pre-music, with Ron studying graphic design at UCLA and Russell studying film, that makes a lot of sense in terms of how they continue,” Wright observes. “Even before they started trying to make movies, Sparks themselves were very cinematic. A lot of the songs conjure up visuals for you because they’re mini-operas about unusual scenes.
“On top of that, you’ve got the music videos, the album covers which all feel like they’re snapshots from films, and the stagecraft,” says Wright. “There’s a well thought-out choreography to how they appear, especially on TV. Sparks were really helped by a show like Top of the Pops being quite intimate with a band, with the [exuberant, camp] lead singer and [deadpan] keyboard player beaming into living rooms in closeup.”
Understanding the importance of their telegenic qualities, Wright has sourced and cleared the rights to a treasure trove of archive footage, though he ultimately allows these clips to do too much heavy lifting for him. “I watch a lot of music documentaries and I enjoy ones that are about artists I don’t really care for that much,” he explains. “In fact, sometimes they’re more interesting. But I started to feel that Sparks were the most interesting and influential band who don’t have a documentary about them. I felt that even within their fans, there was a lot of connecting of the dots to do. There was a period pre-internet where Sparks would have these little spikes of success, but never in the same territory at the same time.”
Wright’s approach to ‘connecting the dots’ in The Sparks Brothers was to cover everything in chronological order, a move that might be considered unusually thorough if not especially ingenious. The result lacks a satisfying narrative and offers little insight into the notoriously private musicians. By Wright’s own admission, “the big drama is on the records,” though he assures us that the reclusive pair are “almost monastic in their pursuit of being Sparks… what’s in the movie is not a million miles away from what they’re like.”
He concludes: “I think sometimes people wrongly take their sense of humour as insincerity… when the truth of the matter is that they’re dead serious about making music and incredibly passionate about what they do. They don’t see making three- or four-minute songs as beneath them; they have fun with the form.”
The Sparks Brothers is released on 30 Jul via Universal