The Sparks Brothers review – a match made in heaven

Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright is a perfect fit for the absurdist antics of art pop’s most elusive duo in this stranger-than-fiction documentary

“They are a band who you can look up on Wikipedia and know nothing!” So says long-term Sparks fan Julia Marcus, just one voice amid a dizzying array of interviewees (from Sex Pistol Steve Jones to Weird Al Jankovic via Flea, Jane Wiedlin, Neil Gaiman and many, many more) wrestling with the stranger-than-fiction tale of one of pop’s most influentially indefinable enigmas. Charting a course from experimental American art-rock projects to breakthrough UK chart hits, outlandish film dreams (some realised, some not) and insanely challenging concert tours (a different album every night!), Edgar Wright’s energetic ode to Ron and Russell Mael marries exhaustively researched archaeology with the sugar-rush thrill of a heady teenage fan letter.

Best of all, it manages both to unpack and preserve the carefully cultivated air of mystery that surrounds the duo, leaving the viewer with a renewed admiration for their century-straddling decades of reinvention, while still throwing enough “true or false” curveballs to leave you wondering whether the whole thing isn’t an elaborate work of fiction.

Anyone old enough to have seen Sparks perform their hormone-jangling This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us on Top of the Pops in the mid-70s will remember the intense blend of excitement and bewilderment their appearance provoked – and the questions it raised. Is that snake-hipped singer a boy or a girl? What language are they singing? And why is Charlie Chaplin on keyboards? According to “print-the-myth” legend, John Lennon rang Ringo Starr to tell him that Marc Bolan was performing with Adolf Hitler – an anecdote hilariously brought to life on screen by animator Joseph Wallace (with cheeky voice cameos from Nick Frost and Simon Pegg). Having worked dark wonders on the video for Sparks’s 2017 single Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me), Wallace mixes stop-motion puppetry with paper collage cutouts, ensuring that Wright’s film remains as cinematic as its subjects.

The fact that the Maels had long envisaged themselves as creatures of theatre and film rather than just rock music gives Wright a neat through-line that links the cinematic quality of Sparks songs (epic tales told in miniature) to the birth of Annette, a musical collaboration between the brothers and Leos Carax that last month opened the Cannes film festival. Yet as we learn, Carax wasn’t the first French film-maker to dance with Sparks; Jacques Tati tangoed with casting them in his ultimately unmade film Confusion – a prospect that boggles the mind.

Other abortive film projects included several years spent working on Mai: The Psychic Girl, an adaptation of the popular Japanese manga to which Tim Burton was attached. Bizarrely, the one major film role that did come to fruition was an ill-judged musical cameo in Rollercoaster, a disaster movie (in more senses than one) notable largely for being part of the short-lived Sensurround craze, and for the fact that Sparks were reportedly brought in to replace Kiss. Really.

With such rich history to mine, it’s unsurprising that The Sparks Brothers seems at times to be a grand work of comic fantasy – an elaborate hoax cooked up by a director with a sharp eye for a gag and a keen ear for a well-placed pop tune. Just as Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim Vs the World and Baby Driver showcased Wright’s razor-sharp jukebox wit across a range of genres, so The Sparks Brothers teams the Maels with a director whose absurdist slapstick sensibility perfectly matches their own.

Like Alex Winter’s recent labour-of-love rock-doc Zappa, Wright’s account of the life and times of Sparks will leave you a little overwhelmed by their sheer tenacity, creativity and productivity – an inspirational refusal to play by anyone’s rules but their own. From bucket-of-water tomfoolery to visually inventive biography and witty musicology, this really does have something for the girl with everything.

Watch a trailer for The Sparks Brothers.

Contributor

Mark Kermode Observer film critic

The GuardianTramp

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