Edgar Wright makes praiseworthy documentary debut with ‘The Sparks Brothers’

Image of Sparks Brothers
Sundance Institute/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

Sparks may be the most influential, culture-setting music group that you have never heard of. Helping pave the way for an entire future of synth artists, brothers Ron and Russell Mael have released 25 records across their over five decadeslong artistic history. Director Edgar Wright picked up on this gravity with enough chutzpah to produce his first-ever documentary. The film expectedly centers on the oddball Mael brothers, whom Wright called a “criminally underlooked” set of musicians at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival

After producing a stand-up work in archival filmmaking, Wright premiered his glittering film, aptly titled “The Sparks Brothers,” at Sundance Jan. 30. Following the release of HBO’s Bee Gees spotlight in December, Wright has maintained the high bar set for a new wave of music films set to release later this year and next.

“The Sparks Brothers” is not your average documentary, however. Wright brings a quirkiness to the screen that livens the spirit of a traditional chronicling. The film starts out with anticipated Wrightian absurdity: An elegant black and white interview with the Mael brothers asks questions such as “Are you a real band?” to which Ron responds, “Next question.” It’s playful, reflecting the wit and avant-garde style of its titular subjects. 

The film covers everything from the Mael brothers’ roots to how they became known as “The Best British Group to Come Out of America.” Featuring a star-studded ensemble of commenters, including Mike Myers, Jack Antonoff, Fred Armisen and Beck, the documentary leads viewers through each song, moment and performance that catapulted the eccentric group forward in international fame. 

Every story revolving around the Maels’ upbringing is approached with a gentle, beautiful delicacy. Ron and Russell bear incredible vulnerability when talking about the early death of their father, who was a painter and inspired much of the creativity planted in their Southern California childhood household. A significant tone switch occurs once the rock ‘n’ roll elements soak into the narrative, but every second keeps your attention. 

One of the documentary’s most commendable features is its imaginative editing by Paul Trewartha, who previously worked on a behind-the-scenes film of Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” Frequent montages move fast throughout the film, but keep it visually interesting and lively through the end. An 18-person animation crew likewise brings whimsical energy to the film’s storytelling through trippy stop-motion collage animations and claymations that illustrate charming stories from the road. If even these elements of the film don’t spark some joy to release you from your writer’s block or another creative stunt, then you’re probably best out of luck. 

Changes in mood, sidebar anecdotes and the immaculate use of archived or stock footage elevate the watch value of “The Sparks Brothers.” Wright establishes his aesthetic early in the film, yet proceeds to stylistically break form in hopes of avoiding any monotonous territory.

The film admittedly does tend to drag lightly in its second hour, but with an oeuvre as polished and gargantuan as Sparks’ to cover, anything less than two hours would be a disservice. 

Some of the people interviewed comment on how they almost didn’t want to watch the documentary for fear that Sparks’ mystique would get lost in explanation. The film, however, does just the opposite: A new generation of listeners and old fans looking for even more oddities surrounding the Mael brothers are sure to come prepared with more questions than ever after viewing.

Wright brings an impressive attention to detail in his directing, to the point where anyone who watches the film can instantly read how dearly he admires this goofy glam rock band. The same can be said for every artist interviewed — Sparks’ talent and charisma shows through “The Sparks Brothers” in a way that only true fans can reproduce.

Contact Skylar De Paul at [email protected]. Tweet her at @skylardepaul.