Over their astonishing 50-year career, the singular art-pop outfit Sparks has consistently demonstrated a distinctively cinematic sensibility. The pair’s songs are often conceptual and narrative-driven, with rich characters and shifting points of view accompanied by a kind of symphonic flair. The scenarios laid out by the tongue-in-cheek compositions of brothers Ron and Russell Mael — a boy nervous to introduce his German girlfriend to his Jewish family, or a man who regrets marrying a Martian — frequently resemble the plots of short films. So it’s only fitting the band has turned to the screen numerous times. They appeared in the forgotten ’70s disaster thriller Rollercoaster, collaborated on unrealized projects with Jacques Tati and Tim Burton, wrote original music for films by Guy Maddin and Tsui Hark (and even recorded a very strange song with the Hong Kong auteur), and most recently wrote Leos Carax’s upcoming musical Annette.
When held up against that list of credits, The Sparks Brothers, Edgar Wright’s passionate documentary deep dive into the lives of these underappreciated but influential and inventive artists, feels somewhat slight, or at least rather conventional. The Maels express some joking hesitance about the kind of navel-gazing which autobiographical reflection can lead to, but watching them talk never gets old, each possessing a sense of wry humor and off-kilter warmth. Their tendency for self-effacement and parody is ultimately undercut by Wright, who has built an entire career on introducing people to the media he loves, much like Nick Frost in Hot Fuzz making his new partner watch Bad Boys II. It’s telling that when Wright shows up as a talking head in his own film, he’s billed as “Fanboy.” This is as adoring and worshipful as music documentaries get, though Sparks undoubtedly deserves the high praise.
Unlike Maddin or Carax, Wright feels less in concert with Sparks and more at a distance, observing them rather than truly collaborating. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — The Sparks Brothers moves at a breakneck pace, even if it approaches 2 1/2 hours, digging through decades of archival footage, live performances, interviews, and music videos, while also unpacking some of the band’s most beloved songs. But it’s so in-depth that it likely won’t appeal much to viewers who aren’t already Sparks enthusiasts. The use of famous fans like Jack Antonoff and Beck, who show up to make the case for their canonization, ultimately feels like preaching the #1 song in Heaven to an already converted choir.
The Sparks Brothers opens in select theaters June 18.
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