The musical brothers Ron and Russell Mael are known for catchy songs and perplexing shifts. But they longed to be in films. This summer they’re part of two.
Sparks is a band unlike any other. Ron and Russell Mael — the brothers who have made up the eccentric, unclassifiable duo for more than 50 years — have played a pivotal, if unheralded, role in multiple musical movements, from glam rock to new wave to synth-pop.
Their witty, hyper-literate songs, along with the singer Russell’s good looks and keyboardist Ron’s deadpan, glowering stage presence, made Sparks icons of a sort in Europe, but never more than a cult band in the United States. With 25 albums to their name, they have often followed up their biggest moments with radical shifts in style that thrilled loyal fans but baffled more casual listeners.
In 2017, the music-obsessed director Edgar Wright, fresh off the success of “Baby Driver,” went to see Sparks perform in Los Angeles. For years, he had been telling his friends that someone needed to make a documentary about the group, and as he looked at the audience, which ranged from teenagers to graying 60-somethings, and the weird mix of celebrities in attendance, he insistently repeated the idea to his friend, the filmmaker Phil Lord — who told him to make the movie himself.
“I thought, if not me, then who would do it?” Wright said in a recent video conversation.
Four years later, “The Sparks Brothers” is reaching theaters, an exhaustive, proudly overstuffed two-hour-20-minute celebration of a group described in the film as “successful, underrated, hugely influential and overlooked at the same time.” In addition to interviews with the enigmatic Maels, Wright conducted 80 interviews, talking with Sparks fans like Beck, Flea, members of Duran Duran, Mike Myers and Neil Gaiman, as well as collaborators and associates.
One theme in the documentary is the Maels’ lifelong interest in film, and their multiple near-misses in trying to bring their music to the big screen, including a proposed collaboration with the French comedian Jacques Tati and a project with Tim Burton. So it’s ironic that just weeks after “The Sparks Brothers” arrives, they have another movie release: “Annette,” a musical written by the Maels, directed by Leos Carax, and starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. The story of a comedian and opera singer who give birth to a daughter with a “unique gift,” it will open the Cannes Film Festival in July.
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“Even before we had a band, the merging of music and movies just seemed so perfect,” Ron, 75, said, adding, “To be sitting on a movie set in Brussels and watching Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard singing something you wrote — it’s surreal, way beyond what we expected.” (Carax was unavailable for comment.)
Wright presented his idea to the Maels that night he saw them onstage, but they expressed some trepidation, for the same reasons they had turned down previous offers for a documentary.
“We always say that we don’t like looking back because we think it kind of paralyzes you,” said Russell, 72, encapsulating the constant creative forward motion that has defined the band’s oddly incomparable history. “The proposition of doing a documentary is kind of the opposite of that, and in our minds we thought, is it like an obituary in some sense?”
During a video call, Russell added that the endurance of the Maels’ partnership also seemed potentially problematic. “Sparks’ story isn’t the standard fare of a lot of music documentaries,” he said. “There’s no drug casualties, we don’t have that conflict of other bands with brothers in the band — so are there enough dramatic elements to make it interesting?”
To Wright, on the contrary, their perseverance was exactly the point. “That’s the inspiring part,” he said. “Every other band story is about people squandering their talent, and at a certain point you lose sympathy. The fact that Sparks have lasted so long is partly because they’re always close to success but never mainstream. They’ve managed to exist in this sweet spot where they can keep going, but they never have to sell out.”
To the surprise of many, the Maels were born not in Britain, but in Southern California, and were even star athletes in high school. They started playing in groups while attending the University of California, Los Angeles, inspired by the spiky spirit of the Who and the Kinks and by French New Wave cinema. Their band, Halfnelson, was championed by Todd Rundgren, but their 1971 debut album flopped. (Closing a circle, Sparks and Rundgren released the new song “Your Fandango” earlier this year.) They moved to England in 1973, after taking on the name Sparks.