Edgar Wright makes films for film geeks. His breakout hit, “Shaun of the Dead” mixed George Romero-inspired zombie gore with his own dry English comedy sensibilities. “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” may have underperformed at the box office, but it is one of the best-edited, funniest video game movies of all time. He may not be well known to the casual filmgoer, but any cinephile’s ears perk up when Edgar Wright is mentioned.
This year, he has given documentary filmmaking a try with “The Sparks Brothers.”
Sparks, the California-born, United Kingdom-cultivated pop duo is made up of Ron and Russel Mael. The keyboard player and vocalist, respectively, have been making music together since 1970. Their public personas are reserved. The brothers have not given many interviews about who they are and where they have come from—until now.
At the start of the film, in a genius visual pun, curtains are pulled back to reveal the Sparks in hopes to get to know them better.
There is a strong friendship between Wright and the Mael’s as the interviews between the three of them are funny and laid back. Wright uses current-day visits to the Mael’s house and their favorite coffee shop, along with older archival footage of concerts and talk show appearances. Seeing these two at home, at work and at play is a great detour from the album run-through that gives “The Sparks Brothers’’ its structure.
The pair of musicians have recorded 24 studio albums since 1970; almost one every two years. While the documentary never discloses their secret to time management, Wright tries his hardest to mention each of these albums. Wright devotes a lot of time and energy into the album that put Sparks on the map, “Kimono My House.” Wright brings his own vinyl copy of the album on camera as the interviewees marvel at the iconic cover. With the lyrics printed on the back, the brothers reminisce over the intricate lyrics of their lead single, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us.”
The stars interviewed for the documentary aren’t just Ron and Russel. The list includes ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, Steve Jones, Jason Schwartzman and Patton Oswalt. That is only in the first five minutes. Edgar Wright exhausted his contact list to fill this film with celebrities that grew up with Sparks, and mix the interviews with musicians and managers that spent plenty of time with the brothers in the recording studio. Everyone has nothing but nice things to say about Sparks.
It isn’t to say that the film is propaganda, as they do acknowledge the difficult times the Sparks went through. Their financial failure of “Interior Design” that led to a difficult period when no labels wanted to sign their albums is acknowledged, but not dwelled on. Their constant and consistent artistic output does not give a lot of opportunity for negative coverage in the documentary.
This is Edgar Wright’s longest film at two hours and 20 minutes, but it flies right by. His work with editor Paul Trewartha creates a phenomenal pace as he cuts to the intricate beats of the Sparks’ music. “Tryouts For The Human Race” is an incredible song on its own, but when it is set to interviewees humming the bassline and miming the drums it becomes artful. Here, Wright and Trewarth remind the audience that music is a participatory experience.
Edgar Wright’s cinematic energy that makes his fictional films so exciting is still present when he is dealing with reality. “The Sparks Brothers’’ might be a documentary about a band viewers have never heard of, but after watching, viewers won’t stop listening to the Sparks.