Review: Documentarian Edgar Wright Strives to Illuminate 'The Sparks Brothers'

by Karin McKie

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday June 18, 2021

'The Sparks Brothers'
'The Sparks Brothers'  (Source:Focus Features)

Southern California-born brothers Ron and Russell Mael have been playing avant-garde rock music since the early '70s, but few know who they are because their band, Sparks, never achieved breakthrough commercial success.

Documentarian Edgar Wright strives to illuminate their origin story, their process, their catalog of 25 albums and over 500 songs, and their dedicated legions of celebrity fans, some of whom are interviewed in the two-hour, 20-minute film "The Sparks Brothers." Members of New World Order, Duran Duran, Squeeze, Erasure, Haircut One Hundred, Faith No More, Sonic Youth, Human League, and The Go-Go's (Jane Wiedlin dated Russell for a bit while they collaborated) share favorite songs and albums, stories, and tours. Solo artists interviewed about their appreciation include Bjork, Beck, Flea, Weird Al, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, and Todd Rundgren, who is largely responsible for getting the band signed to their first label.

The Maels formed their first band, Halfnelson, while studying at UCLA, and tried to emulate The Who and The Kinks, to little success. So the brothers took inspiration from the French New Wave films that Ron loved to become more edgy, mixing glam rock and techno music that predated Kraftwerk's industrial, electronic experimentation. Lyricist and keyboardist Ron also sported a Charlie Chaplin/Hitler mustache and stared strangely at the camera in some of the band's (and industry's) earliest music videos. Vocalist Russell had long-haired lead singer good looks and a lofty falsetto, and together the pair exuded "creative recklessness."

Not having much success in the U.S., the brothers abandoned their American band and started a new one in the UK, where they finally found some success with the catchy tune "This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us" and appearances on the "Top of the Pops" TV show. Their album and video ethos matched their music as equally "disgusting, creepy and delicious."

Sparks sought to "further their musical perversions" and returned home to the States, again leaving their band (the UK-based one). The band moved into dance and club music, repeating song phrases like "All I do Now is Dick Around" and following their mantra of, "if you don't like this, we don't care." The Maels continue to challenge themselves, and played every song on each of their albums in chronological order for 21 nights straight in London, for a "Sparks Spectacular" in 2008. Duran Duran's front man Simon Le Bon called the stunt "insane, but fantastic."

While unable to maintain lasting traction in America, the band has found a huge following in Asia, and now in Latin America. Today, their everyday and celebrity fans, as told in this lush and funny film, continue to appreciate the "ridiculous, preposterous, extraordinary and triumphant" music and musicians.

"The Sparks Brothers" opens in theaters on June 18.

Karin McKie is a writer, educator and activist at