We like our weirdos in the United States, but they have to be definably weird. Ron and Russell Mael, the brothers who are the rock band Sparks, have been resisting labels for a half-century and over two dozen albums. Are they a comedy act? Art-rockers? Synth-pop founding fathers? What’s with the Hitler mustache? Is Sparks for real or a joke?
They’re both and more, hard for US audiences to get their heads around but recognized and welcomed as grand eccentrics in England and the rest of Europe, where the group arguably influenced Queen and definitely influenced a generation of post-punk brooders and New Romantic hitmakers. Now “the best British band to ever come out of America” gets the documentary treatment from director Edgar Wright, himself a cheeky bugger (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Baby Driver”), and it is superbly entertaining whether you love Sparks, hate them, or just have never heard of them.
“The Sparks Brothers,” in fact, is testimony to a long-running brother act that has been remarkably congenial next to, say, the battling Davies of the Kinks (a major Sparks influence) or the Gallaghers of Oasis. Rising out of the musical mosh pit of late-1960s LA, the Pasadena-born duo eschewed surf rock, psychedelic rock, and folk rock for a heady, hyperactive stew of operatic power-pop. Visually, they were even more distinctive, with younger brother Russell a handsome, helium-voiced lead singer in the mold of Roger Daltrey or Robert Plant, and big brother Ron sitting stoically behind the keyboards, side-eyeing the audience in a crisp white shirt and tie. (And, yes, the mustache, never explained and owing as much to Chaplin as der Fuhrer, although these days it’s more of a gigolo’s pencil-line.)
The group’s first two records stiffed in America but caught on in Great Britain, and relocation and a fresh band led to 1974′s “Kimono My House,” with its Mixmaster of a hit, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us.” Two more British albums followed and by the time Sparks returned to America in 1976, they were so forgotten that their label titled one album “Introducing Sparks.” No one took them up on the offer.
Yet the Maels never went away and with “No. 1 in Heaven” (1979), produced by disco maestro Giorgio Moroder, Sparks was reinvented as a synth band, parlaying a sound that came on like a coolly goofy dancefloor rush. If you don’t believe the impact that record had on British outfits like Joy Division/New Order and Duran Duran, here are those bands’ members telling us exactly how much Sparks served as a foundation. The arrival of MTV in the 1980s brought this always-visual group back to America, the gorgeous 1994 hit “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’” found a new generation of European fans, and since then the Maels have triangulated among the States, England, and the Continent. Rock critics have always hated them. A lot of people don’t even know about them. But those who love Sparks, really, really love Sparks.
Wright is of their number, and the band is lucky to have an exuberant movie stylist tell their story. “The Sparks Brothers” zips along at such a breezy, informational pace that you notice its length only in the final stretch, when the film’s reduced to ticking off the albums as they keep coming. Oddly (and in keeping with the Sparks mythos), we learn virtually nothing of the brothers’ personal lives. The running assumption is that they might not have one.
But Wright gets the Maels on board from the beginning — they wrote the opening fanfare, called “Documentary Film Fanfare” — and they are great good company throughout, answering the director’s sometimes daft questions with deadpan humor. “The Sparks Brothers” occasionally resorts to Claymation-style reenactments (including one anecdote in which John Lennon and Ringo Starr are voiced by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the stars of Wright’s repertory company), but those are rare, since so many others turn up to bow low and tell their tales. Beck and Björk, Todd Rundgren (their first producer), the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, comedians Mike Myers and Patton Oswalt, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, and a mob of record producers, managers, bandmates, fans, and musicians all testify with awe and affection.
“There’s something comforting in knowing something this weird can survive,” says Rundgren at one point, and the Maels are flourishing well into their 70s. “Annette,” a film for which Sparks wrote the script and songs, will open the Cannes Film Festival on July 6, directed by France’s Leos Carax (“Holy Motors”) and starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard as a stand-up comedian and his opera-singer wife.
Is it possible these guys are just getting started?
THE SPARKS BROTHERS
Directed by Edgar Wright. Starring Ron Mael, Russell Mael, Beck, Mike Myers, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Neil Gaiman. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, suburbs. 135 minutes. R (language)