Edgar Wright

The Sparks Brothers

02/08/21

Cameo Cinema

Picture this. It’s 1973 and I’m sitting at home watching Top of the Pops, which, when I think about it, is pretty much all I ever did in 1973. And then, quite without warning, up pops a band called Sparks and they’re really, REALLY weird. The keyboard player is a mop-headed energetic hunk, while his older brother sits motionlessly at a keyboard looking like a villain from a Buster Keaton movie. The song, of course, is This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us, and it isn’t like anything I’ve ever heard before. The next time I see my mates (we’re in a band, obviously), we’re all like, ‘Did you see those guys on TOTP? What the fuck was that?’

And from there, Sparks pretty much disappeared off my radar. I assumed that they’d packed it in, called it a day, broken up because of ‘musical differences.’ But, as it turned out, they hadn’t.

Over a fifty year career, they kept right on going, creating their idiosyncratic music and releasing new records every so often, some of which were acclaimed, others perceived as abject failures. Though their backing musicians changed, the core duo of Ron and Russell Mael remained intact. Over those years, it turns out, they picked up a legion of fans, many of them musicians themselves and one of whom was the film director Edgar Wright. When Wright asked, ‘Why has there never been a film about Ron and Russell Mael?’ he repeatedly met with a baffled silence. So, eventually, he decided to make one himself.

And here’s the result: a forensic (and, it has to be said, lengthy) study of the Sparks phenomenon, featuring interviews with a whole horde of musicians, writers, comedians and movie makers, all of whom, unlike me, kept watching and listening to Sparks, and many of whom are all too ready to admit that they were greatly influenced by the band. (One of them, Todd Rundgren, who produced their first album when they were known as Half Nelson, is surely a man who deserves this kind of documentary treatment all to himself, but I digress.)

The Sparks Brothers is fascinating in many ways. For one thing, it pretty much eschews the main thrust of your average rock doc, which is to get under the skin of its subject and break down any enigma that might have been there. Somehow, Ron and Russell emerge from this film every bit as enigmatic as they were before. All we really learn about them is that they are workaholics. Wright deals with every single album release over two-hours-and-twenty minutes, and we get to see the two men age as their story unfolds, but Wright’s magpie-like approach (using documentary and newsreel footage, stop frame animation, montage and interviews) means that the film never overstays its welcome. The sad truth about the Maels seems to be that they steadfastly refused to stand still. If they’d made slight variations on their successful third album, Kimono My House, they’d doubtless have been filling stadiums worldwide. But, as Oscar Wilde observed, versatility is a curse, and it is their very need to keep reinventing themselves that has ultimately limited their appeal. But it’s not just about keeping their fans happy. As many musicians admit here, they were a massive influence on their peers, Ron’s synth-based riffs being ‘borrowed’ from everyone from Erasure to Duran Duran.

It seems like an auspicious time to bring the Maels back into the limelight, with their Leos Carax-directed musical Annette due to arrive in cinemas sometime soon – and promising to be every bit as eccentric as the Maels themselves. Until then, The Sparks Brothers is well worth your time.

Of course it will help if you’re already a fan, but really, you don’t have to be.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Film Bouquets 2017

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All things considered, 2017 was a pretty good year for film – so much so that we’ve decided to award twelve bouquets – and it still means leaving out some excellent movies. Here, in order of release, are our favourite films of 2017.

Manchester By the Sea

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This bleakly brilliant film got the new year off to a great start. Powered by superb central performances by Casey Affleck and (especially) Michelle Williams, it was a stern viewer indeed who didn’t find themselves reduced to floods of tears.

Moonlight

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An affecting coming-of-age movie chronicling the life of a young black man as he gradually came to terms with his own sexuality, this film, of course, beat La La Land to the best movie Oscar in unforgettable style. It absolutely deserved its success.

Get Out

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A ‘social thriller’ that, despite it’s serious message, enjoyed a lightness of touch that made it a joy to watch. There were shades of The Stepford Wives and this witty calling card from director Jordan Peele suggested that cinema had found a hot new talent.

The Handmaiden: Director’s Cut

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Park Chan-wook’s masterpiece, loosely based on Sarah Water’s novel, Fingersmith, took us into the Korea of the 1930s and kept us spellbound for nearly three hours. Lush cinematography, a genuine sense of eroticism and fine performances from an ensemble cast – what’s not to like?

The Red Turtle

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This stunning animation from Michael Dudok de Wit, co-produced by Japan’s Studio Ghibli,  exemplified the best artistic traditions of east and west – a beautiful allegory about life and love and relationships. A delight to watch and a story that we couldn’t stop thinking about.

Baby Driver

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Edgar Wright’s adrenaline-fuelled chase movie ticked all the right boxes – a great soundtrack, breathless pacing and an intriguing central character in Ansel Elgort’s titular hero. It all added up to an unforgettable movie experience.

God’s Own Country

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This extraordinarily accomplished debut by writer/director Francis Lee played like ‘Brokeback Yorkshire’ but had enough brio to be heralded in its own right. Beak and brutal, it told the story of two farm hands slowly coming to terms with their growing love for each other. Magnificent stuff.

Mother!

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Darren Aronfsky’s absurd fantasy alienated as many viewers as it delighted, but we found ourselves well and truly hooked. From Jennifer Lawrence’s great central performance to the film’s bruising finale, this was definitely a film not to be missed – and one of the year’s most discussed films.

Blade Runner 2049

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We waited thirty years for a sequel to Ridley Scott’s infamous film and I’m glad to say it was worth the wait – a superior slice of dystopian cinema that dutifully referenced the original whilst adding some innovative ideas of its own. Denis Villeneauve handled the director’s reins expertly and Hans Zimmer’s score was also memorable.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

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Another piece of eerie weirdness from director Yorgos Lanthimos, this film also managed to divide audiences, but for us it was a fascinating tale, expertly told and one that kept us hooked to the final, heart-stopping scene. A unique cinematic experience.

Paddington 2

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Yes, really! The sequel to the equally accomplished Paddington was an object lesson in how to effortlessly please every single member of an audience. Charming, funny and – at one key point – heartbreaking, this also featured a scene-stealing turn from Hugh Grant.

The Florida Project

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Think ‘Ken Loach does Disney’ and you’re halfway there. Sean Baker’s delightful film might just have been our favourite of 2017, a moving story about the tragic underbelly of life in contemporary America. Brooklyn Prince’s performance as six-year-old Moonee announced the arrival of a precocious new talent.

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield

Baby Driver

28/06/17

I have a lot of respect for writer/director Edgar Wright. From Spaced, through the ‘three Cornettos’ trilogy, even with Scott Pilgrim Vs the World, he’s always managed to deliver something fresh and original – and who knows how Ant Man might have turned out if he hadn’t been unceremoniously dumped and had managed to bring his initial concept to fruition? I’ve heard plenty of good word-of-mouth about Baby Driver but when I saw the the trailer, I thought the film looked decidedly generic and profoundly unexciting.

I needn’t have worried. This is pacy, original and occasionally thrilling stuff, mostly because it has the brio to pursue a simple idea to its logical conclusion. We’ve all had that moment, I’m sure, walking along a busy street with a set of earphones plugged in, imagining that what’s playing in our head is our own personal soundtrack. Wright has taken that idea and stamped down hard on the accelerator. What he serves up here is essentially a series of stylish set-pieces orchestrated by and choreographed to an eclectic mix of rock classics. Little wonder the trailer couldn’t do it justice. To understand exactly how it works, you have to see an entire track play out.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is working as the getaway-driver-of-choice for crime boss, Doc (Kevin Spacey). A childhood accident means that Baby suffers from constant tinitus, so being plugged into one of his many iPods helps him function on a daily basis. Every heist he takes part in is, therefore, accompanied by a kicking tune, pretty much in its entirety. But we soon learn that he is a reluctant criminal, only working for Doc in order to pay off a long-standing debt and feeling nothing in common with the genuine gangsters he is obliged to work alongside. They include super aggressive Bats (Jamie Foxx) and weird lovebirds, Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eliza Gonzalez). When Baby meets up with young waitress, Deborah (Lily James), he sees a powerful reason to disentangle himself from the clutches of his former employer. But it seems he isn’t going to be allowed to get off the hook quite as easily as he’d hoped…

Car chase movies are two-a-penny, but Baby Driver takes the genre to a whole new level and happily it isn’t only about the car chases. There’s plenty of good humour here and a scene where Baby goes to buy coffee is so beautifully choreographed it’s an absolute delight. Another highlight is a foot-chase set to yodelling oddity Hocus Pocus by the Dutch band, Focus. It shouldn’t work, but it does, effortlessly.

OK, so the film isn’t quite perfect. It sags briefly towards the middle when a gun deal goes wrong and events briefly threaten to tip into Free Fire territory, and there’s that annoying old trope of apparently dead characters coming back for another go once too often – but these are minor niggles in a film that for the most part zips along like the proverbial tigers on vaseline. I also love that this isn’t one of those movies where the protagonists get to drive off into the sunset without any recriminations…

Judging by the sizeable crowd for this early evening screening, Wright has a palpable hit on his hands and that success is well-deserved. Hop aboard this little beauty, buckle in and enjoy the ride.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney