A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip. The title of Sparks’ 25th album is right. It took more than 50 years, but the genre-defying musical duo of Ron and Russell Mael is about to break through.
A bit like the multi-storey chasm carved by the monster’s acid blood in Alien, looking back at the wormhole they’ve left in pop culture is kind of jaw-dropping.
Ron and Russell Mael, aka Sparks.Credit:Anna Webber/Focus Features
The cinema reference is deliberate because that’s where the brothers from Los Angeles fell in love with art, specifically the French new wave of Godard and Truffaut, and that’s where they’ve now arrived. The brothers’ first feature, Annette, directed by Parisian auteur Leos Carax, will open the Cannes Film Festival next month.
Reaching cinemas sooner is The Sparks Brothers, an appropriately comical documentary by Edgar Wright, the English action-comedy director of Shaun of the Dead and Baby Driver.
“I kept saying aloud to anybody who would listen, ‘why hasn’t somebody done a documentary about Sparks?’” Wright says via Zoom from London. “Sparks are the greatest, most influential band to not have a documentary about them … I wanted the world to realise how big their cultural footprint is.”
“You should do it,” a friend eventually replied at a Sparks gig in London six years ago. Backstage that very night, the deal was done. “As soon as I said it out loud to Ron and Russell, it was a kind of verbal contract I had to deliver on,” Wright says with the schoolboy glee that seems to spur every step, if not every edit of his career.
Wright’s flair for dizzying pace, visual gags and lovingly rendered satire was an obvious fit for a band which, in the director’s words, has made a career of “being a part of the scene, and also standing at the side of the dancefloor commenting at the same time”.
“We’ve had several offers through the years and we’ve always rejected them,” says Ron Mael, the scowly one with the provocative moustache, on a dual phone line with his younger brother from Los Angeles.
“A lot of it is due to us thinking that a documentary maybe wouldn’t do us service; that our music and the stage presentation and videos and packaging and all are more representative of Sparks than a documentary would be.”
It was hard to imagine, he concedes, “how the visual excitement in his narrative films might be translated into a documentary … one thing we were fearful of is, ‘what if he saved all his good stuff for his narrative films and this is just another dry, boring music documentary?’ But it’s far from that. It feels like an Edgar Wright film.”
From left, Russell Mael, director Edgar Wright and Russell Mael have made a documentary about Sparks’ off-centre musical career.Credit:Focus Films
Wright lends equal weight to each phase of Sparks’ undulating story, regardless of where it landed on the radar of pop hotness. That’s partly what clinched the deal, says Russell, the singer with the operatic technique and po-faced delivery of some of the most hysterical lyrics in showbiz.
“To us,” he says, “it’s kind of amusing when we see ‘Sparks is a rock band’ and ‘Sparks is a pop band’; ‘Sparks is a chamber classical band’, ‘Sparks is a synth electronic duo’… we never think in those terms. We have the luxury as a duo that we can adapt to whatever style we want to do … there’s not any limitations.”
Russell (left) and Ron Mael dressed as a bride and groom in 1982 for the cover of their album, ‘Angst In My Pants’. Credit:Getty Images
In commercial terms, such wilful shifts and general weirdness have naturally been a mixed blessing. Unable to get arrested at home, Sparks were shipped off to London in the early ’70s, where their visual/dramatic/narrative inspirations made them an accidental fit with the nascent glam scene (a new band called Queen opened for them at the Marquee).
Way ahead of the ‘80s electro wave, their next inspired left turn with Georgio Moroder gave Sparks their biggest hit in Australia with When I’m With You in 1980. It also opened up an ongoing love affair with Europe, further muddying the Maels’ deliberately opaque origin story.
Wright says, “in the early days I think there was a conscious decision to be enigmatic in the way that David Bowie or Marc Bolan seemed like they were from another planet. Ron and Russell definitely created this mystique about themselves… They started the rumour that they were Doris Day’s sons, for example, which is completely untrue.”
The constant drop-off and renewal of their fanbase meant no reason for Sparks to keep any kind of story straight. The brothers gradually became more monastic in their process in the ’80s, recording and pleasing themselves. It’s hard to imagine their astonishing choral-orchestral evolution of the 2000s happening on any record label’s watch.
Even now, says Ron, “We work in a very closed-off way, and we are not aware of very many famous people that would openly express any kind of passion for Sparks. So that was something that we learned in the documentary.”
Morever, says Russell, “we were really happy at the varied types of creative people that Edgar enlisted to speak in the film”. He mentions “synthesiser types” Vince Clarke and New Order, noisy punks from Sonic Youth and the Sex Pistols, even Jack Antanoff, who produces Taylor Swift and Lorde.
Then there are fans from other disciplines, including fantasy writer Neil Gaiman and comic actors Mike Myers and Patton Oswald, “so it’s this real mishmash of creative types that we were pleasantly surprised that Edgar had enlisted”.
Even these standard talking heads sequences manage to surrender to the Sparks enigma. Fans such as Beck, Flea and Todd Rundgren often seem more bemused than informed. Endearingly inseparable on camera as in life, the Maels’ interviews reveal just enough backstory, leaving Wright to edit for laughs.
“Over the years, the line between Ron and Russell and Sparks itself has become so blurred that I don’t think they know where one ends and the other one starts,” the director says with amusement. “In six years … I never saw them off the clock. They were always Ron and Russell from Sparks. It’s like a commitment to old-fashioned showbusiness in a way. Give the fans what they want.”
Unless that means those classic rockumentary cliches you can set your watch by, “and that was really one of our concerns,” says Ron. “The drug issue, a rapid rise followed by a demise, or perhaps a reunion tour at the end, you know, super-sentimental … that’s all missing from our career. We just asked Edgar flat-out ‘is there enough of interest to warrant the documentary?’ We wanted to make sure that there was enough drama in it, in some form or other.”
As it happens, the miraculous development of Annette, their own imminent film with Leos Carax, pins the third act climax on a highly unorthodox career arc which, in Wright’s words, “goes up and down like an ECG machine”.
“As was covered in the documentary, we’ve had various flirtations with movie musical projects in the past that just didn’t come to fruition,” Russell says. One with Jacques Tati in the ’70s and another with Tim Burton in the ’90s both collapsed, leaving the duo deflated but not defeated.
“For the first time, this one has stuck,” Russell says. “It’s a project we wrote and initiated eight years ago. It was going to be Sparks’ next album at the time [until] we met with … Carax, who had used one of our songs in his last film, Holy Motors.
“Here we are eight years later, the film is starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard and it’s going to be the opening night film at the Cannes Film Festival. So talk about improbable stories.”
The Sparks Brothers is in limited release from June 24.
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