Ron Mael

Annette

03/09/21

Cineworld Edinburgh

Director Leos Carax has a reputation for the unusual. Anyone who witnessed Holy Motors (2012) will testify that he loves to embrace the absurd. So Annette would seem like a good fit for him. This surreal rock opera, created by Ron and Russel Mael of Sparks – who themselves are suddenly enjoying some time in the sun after a long sojourn in the ‘whatever happened to?’ file – gives Carax free rein to unleash his bonkers world-view. There are some gorgeous visuals in here, strong performances and several scenes that feel genuinely unique. How ironic then, that what ultimately lets the film down is the songs.

There’s a really upbeat start to proceedings as the cast and crew parade through the streets singing about how excited they are to get this show started. And then it begins…

This is the story of Henry McHenry (Adam Driver), a ‘provocative’ stand up comedian who seems to love insulting the poor saps who buy tickets to see his shows. If it’s supposed to be funny, well, it isn’t working for me, but perhaps that’s the point. Henry is in the throes of a passionate love affair with world famous opera singer, Ann Desfranoux (Marion Cotillard), to whom he sings even when they are in the midst of sexual intercourse. Not wanting to be left out, she joins in with him.

But when Henry’s ‘comedy’ career suddenly hits the rocks and Ann’s operatic trajectory continues to soar, in true A Star in Born fashion, Henry becomes ever more Machiavellian in his attempts to bring her down, even after she’s given birth to their daughter, the titular Annette. The child is unusual to say the very least and not just because she appears to be made of wood.

It would perhaps be unfair to give away much more of the plot, but suffice to say that what starts out as very strange becomes increasingly bizarre. So there’s plenty here to keep a viewer entertained.

Which brings me back to the aforementioned songs, too many of which seem to consist of characters singing the same six words over and over again in a minor key. After a while it begins to feel like a particularly irritating ring tone. It also makes me think that the bum-numbing running time of two hours and twenty minutes could easily have been reduced by a good forty minutes, if the Maels had done a bit of judicious trimming.

It’s also doubly bewildering when a final duet between McHenry and his daughter is the film’s undoubted musical highlight, but by that time it feels too late in the day to save it. A shout out is due to the astonishing Devyn McDowell, who kind of steals the film in its closing moments. I think she’ll be a huge star in the future.

Driver also deserves full credit for playing it straight and giving his role total commitment. Cotillard – somewhat underused for reasons that soon become clear – at least gets to sing some classic arias with great skill. (And yes, she does perform them herself.) But the current plethora of four and five star reviews for Annette seem wildly overstated. And much as I enjoyed Edgar Wright’s documentary about Ron and Russell, this is not their finest moment. I fully expected to love this, but in the end, I’m somewhat disappointed by it.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney

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