The Best Band You’ve Never Heard Of

Edgar Wright’s new documentary should spark interest in an underappreciated synth-pop duo

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo | June 10, 2021

The Sparks Brothers
In theatres
Opens June 18

4 out of 5

Before watching this Edgar Wright documentary I thought of Sparks as a marginal British novelty act. I wasn’t a Sparks virgin. “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us” and “Please Don’t Fuck Up My World” made it to my Discover Weekly playlist. But I was clueless about the depth and widespread influence of the band — hell, they’re not even British!

Wright is best known for the Cornetto Trilogy of British horror comedies and the cult masterpiece Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that he chose Sparks as the subject for his first documentary, as the band (actually made up of two California siblings, Ron and Russell Mael, with a taste for synth pop and theatricality) are true iconoclasts.

Over a five decade span, they’ve produced 25 albums, consistently flirting with mainstream popularity (especially early on), but never quite getting there. Not that they cared. Sparks was often ahead of music trends, and the one time they did hit the sweet spot, it was because a record wasn’t released until two years after the brothers recorded it.

You can establish Sparks’ influence from Björk to ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, both whom are on hand to sing their praises — not Pet Shop Boys though, so read into that what you will. As Vince Clark from Erasure puts it, the long lineage of strange, silent keyboardists can be traced all the way back to Russell Mael and his toothbrush moustache — once a regular presence on BBC’s Top of the Pops and Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.

Unlike the vast majority of documentaries and biopics about musicians, Wright’s film sidesteps most clichés because Sparks has never been huge or endured steep falls. There are no scandalous hookups or problems with drugs that put the integrity of the band in jeopardy. The whole movie is about their music, and it’s more than enough.

Assisted by Sparks’ predictably off-kilter videos, The Sparks Brothers is visually adventurous. The brothers themselves are engaging personalities, affable, self-effacing and slightly more normal than on stage. The other interviewees — from Neil Gaiman to Flea — are hardcore fans willing to go to bat for the duo.

The film argues snobbery has kept Sparks from becoming a household name. The comedic tone of their lyrics may have contributed to that attitude. There’s a Forrest Gump quality to the band. Sparks was in the background of major shifts in the music industry, including the emergence of punk and techno. They were Kraftwerk before Kraftwerk.

The combination of a great subject and a filmmaker who enhances their story is hard to beat. The Spark Brothers has both, in spades.

Coda: Because of this documentary and Sparks’ involvement with Annette — a musical by Leos Carax (Holy Motors) starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard that opens at Cannes July 6 — the band has never been closer to full-fledged stardom, at least this century. Based on this doc, it won’t make the slightest difference to them. But their fans will be ecstatic.