Todd Rundgren

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