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What Sparks Joy

So, let’s talk Sparks. What is/who are Sparks? To some extent, no one really knows, still, even after the release of director Edgar Wright’s lovingly comprehensive documentary about the band, The Sparks Brothers (2021). While the band has spanned many lineups and genres from the early 1970s all the way through this year’s award winning, Cannes-standing-O-getter, the movie musical Annette, truly Sparks is always and only brothers Russell and Ron Mael: glam rock icons, synth pioneers, pop elder statesmen, and perhaps most impressive, brothers who have worked together inseparably for 50 years and still get along. The tagline for the movie is “Meet your favorite band’s favorite band,” and since it was announced, you have either been waiting for The Sparks Brothers to hit theaters like you’re eight and it’s Christmas morning or…you probably aren’t even reading this far into my thing. But if you are and you haven’t been, you should. Because while the Brothers Mael may not be for everyone, the story of their incredible musical catalog absolutely is.

I came to Sparks late. That is not unusual. It’s actually quite usual, verging on inevitable. As I said, they’ve been kicking around for five decades. If you’re under 50, even if you were the hippest zygote on earth, you’d always be late to their party. Although that also assumes Sparks is a normal band with a normal trajectory, evolving a definitive sound or persona in a way that gives fans a spot marked “start here,” where you can tick off the albums like squares in a game of Candyland. You can even do that with David Bowie. Sparks’ discography, however, resists linear tourism on any axis; finding your way through their 25 studio albums* is less like growing up through a band’s sound and more trying to figure out where to start reading Discworld. 

No one cares how or when I came to Sparks though. I only mention it as my poor anecdotal proof of how inscrutable they are, how elusive. I was a Weird Kid. They are a Weird Band. And yet I missed them. For years and years, I missed them. It must have been like a bad romantic comedy, always just barely missing the one I should always have been looking for. Which might also be a Sparks song. And when I did finally, finally notice them, it was only because they had recorded an album with one of my favorite bands, Franz Ferdinand, under the name FFS. I didn’t even know to look for it; YouTube’s algorithm, bless it, just fed it to me. Good robot! From the first hit of Russell’s signature arch tenor on their single “Johnny Delusional”–a voice that locates itself in a Venn diagram of Tiny Tim, Marc Bolan, and a Burgess Meredith performance–I was spellbound. Who is that?! And yet I was still only crossing their path because they were on Franz Ferdinand’s arm. Which also sounds like a Sparks song. 

And this is not atypical. Sparks is the definition of a cult band. While they have had hits, it’s almost in spite of themselves, and their style has changed so radically so often over the decades–although it’s always the same kind of acerbic, convoluted weirdness at its heart–for every audience they win, they propose to lose one. This motivated Edgar Wright, director of such films as Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World (2010), as well as self-confessed Sparks fanboy, to make the film in the first place, believing what the Brothers Mael lacked to affirm their deserved rock-pop immortality was a cinematic overview of their whole deal. And he gives us that, stinting nothing, using claymation, animation, testimonials from famous fans ranging from Flea to Neil Gaiman, archive footage, and cute subtitles to fully Sparksify the documentary format with in-jokes, sight gags, and earnest sentiment when you least expect it. It’s a clear labor of love and I laughed out loud as much as I seat-danced in the theater. Four stars, two thumbs, go see it, send tweet.

While the film has enjoyed incredibly positive word of mouth ever since its debut at Cannes last year, some express frustration with either the length–50 years is a long time, and Wright does not condense or edit to manufacture a storyline that we, experienced reality show watchers we all are, instinctively expect–or the fact that you never really learn much about the brothers themselves. I mean, I know that Russell has a Hello Kitty toaster now. That’s kind of cute. But apart from a brief dip into their childhood and teen years to establish the brothers’ love of cinema and music, their quintessential, overlooked Americanness, and the effect of their father’s sudden death on their relationship, we only get Hello Kitty toaster-size glimpses into their actual biography. For the most part, relationships outside of the band, foibles, frustrations, fallouts, all that nitty-gritty gossip that we’re trained to look for when we go behind the music, if it ever happened, we’re not to know. In the film, all that is important once Russell and Ron start making music together is the music. 

The Sparks Brothers then is, like a Sparks song, a little tricky, baiting you with a cliche–a tale of unappreciated genius–to tell you a rarer, sometimes heartbreaking, always inspiring story of how their music still kept coming through the years. “Tits” is not about tits, “Achoo” is not about having a cold, and The Sparks Brothers isn’t about the Sparks brothers at all really. It’s about their work and their work ethic. The music is the real main character, and for that, we do get all the ups and downs, foibles, frustrations, fallouts, and all that nitty-gritty gossip we expect to be edited out, glossed over, elided in favor of sex scandals, bankruptcies, contractual disputes, and rivalries. We may never know if Ron was really jealous of Russell’s heartthrob appeal or if Russell ever really feels like his big brother’s ventriloquist dummy. To the extent that any relationship outside of the band or drama does feature, it’s always and only in relation to how and why the music got made. Then, like the relentlessly innovative Maels, it’s on to the next album.

I mean, the Maels are geniuses, and that’s a hill I’ll happily die on, but this film is less a testament to their brilliance than Wright probably thinks it is. That’s a good thing though. Brilliance is always subjective, and what the Maels’ story offers is more substantial than that. You’ll find one of the persistent theses of The Sparks Brothers, witnessed by collaborators from days practicing in their mom’s living room to FFS partner Alex Kapranos, is that while the brothers change styles and sounds aggressively, they never compromise for the sake of building or mollifying an audience. Pure artists they, authoring trends before the world is ready, like a couple of time travelers stomping on butterflies until, voila, we have a future with Erasure and the Pet Shop Boys in it. The film puts a bit of a lie to this tale in the telling though, as we meet band members who get abruptly sacked when the brothers’ weathervane swings away from a poor reception or hear how Russell and Ron sought to adapt their always cerebral, highly theatrical sound to a world more interested in the visceral grind of punk, dance music, grunge–generally whatever the Maels are not doing. They do react to audiences. They do respond to the zeitgeist. They do chase fame. They are human and they do need to be loved. But as I said, this movie isn’t really about them. It’s about the music, and through all of this and still today, so are they. That’s the brilliant bit, that’s their secret, and that’s so much cooler than just being freaking underappreciated geniuses. (Although, yes, that, too.)

Despite Ron and Russell’s personal doubts or ambitions, in fair weather and foul, they produced the music they needed to produce. That in itself is an achievement. That is also why this is a story about a rock band’s survival and not their demise. Whether the work they put out was well-received or not–by audiences or by the Maels themselves–is secondary. Commercial flop Big Beat stands in an oeuvre that includes chart toppers like Kimono My House and vestigial curiosities like Plagiarism, and however iconic, influential, or profitable those individual records may be, their simple existence is a triumph. That sounds underwhelming maybe, a participation trophy where a Grammy should be, but it’s a joyous testament and essential to busting the myth of artistic success that would have Sparks on Top of the Pops in the 70s only burn out or burn up in drugs, despair, or an excess of artistic vision. And if this is a happy version of that story, maybe they get to have a comeback in later years, having eluded what Kapranos refers to as the terrible fate of a successful band becoming a tribute to its former self.

Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that their music itself is the ward to that terrible fate. Moving on to Big Beat keeps you from dwindling in the shadow of Kimono and leads you on and on in a career where you’re back in the Top 10 in your 70s with 2017’s “Hippopotamus” and opening Cannes in 2021. Not only does Wright’s decision not to gloss over the low points in Sparks’ career to wax ecstatic over the highlights center the music, giving every album its due, but this approach makes plain the real inspirational message of the film, something working artists of all stripes and media have to understand when they punch the clock for this deadline or that contract: it’s a job as much as a calling, and sometimes the most impressive part of the Sparks Brothers’ career is how they kept showing up for work. Not art for art’s sake exactly; that implies less struggle and more self-assurance than the bits of biography we do get illustrate–although I think the Maels have achieved that mindset in more recent years. It’s more work for work’s sake: see what sticks, adapt, keep going.

That is the lesson that I came away with, and it’s honestly a more interesting and valuable one than “Ron and Russell Mael are too brilliant to be appreciated.” It’s more subversive, too, which I think the Maels would respect. Feeling like a misunderstood genius? Not sure how to go on with that project, that painting, that Great American Novel? Friend, this film is the hug and the headpat you need. Now get to work. You don’t make great art by languishing in your personal foibles, etc. You make great art by making art which starts by showing up. You don’t have to love any era of Sparks’ catalogue or even be particularly creative to see what they’ve done and be inspired by it, particularly when you appreciate how lean the lean times were for them. That’s practically American Dream porn, although in true Sparks fashion, they’ve had to go to Europe a few times to achieve it. 

With apologies to Marie Kondo, what sparks joy for me about The Sparks Brothers isn’t wallowing in the myth of their uncompromising vision. It’s the validation of consistent, disciplined, thoughtful craft as the basis of great music that will survive them and all of us. It is the indispensable lesson behind their body of work, and it is a joyful lesson. Not everyone can write songs like Ron Mael, even sometimes, probably, Ron Mael. But you can show up, not just for art, but whatever is important in your life, whatever you want your story to really be about. Everyone can do that. Coleman Francis did that. If you do, eventually, your work will tell its own story, and chances are, just like Sparks, that story will be far more difficult and admirable than simple genius.  

The Sparks Brothers is in theaters and on demand now.

*Counting the FFS collaboration with Franz Ferdinand, which apparently some sources do not? Sparks clearly do though, and they should know best probably.

~~~

Angela used to sing FFS’ “Piss Off” as a lullaby to her infant daughter. Now it’s mostly a lullaby to herself.

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