SXSW: ‘The Sparks Brothers’ is One of the Most Delightfully, Appropriately Irrelevant Music Docs in Years (FILM REVIEW)

Grade: A

Edgar Wright may be the only filmmaker who could handle documenting the decades-long legacy of Sparks. An acute master of pop culture, the director’s approach can veer toward loving homage (Baby Driver) to cheeky irrelevance (The Cornetto Trilogy), and both perspectives are required to look at a band as obscure and influential as the midwestern duo.

The appropriately titled The Sparks Brothers, Wright frames talking head interviews in stark HD black-and-white, ranging from former members of the band, rock star Todd Rundgren, producer Tony Visconti, comedian Patton Oswalt, actor Mike Myers, and actor/drummer Jason Schwartzman, who quips early on that he might not even watch the finished doc to preserve the mystery that still lingers around the long-running act.

Formed in California in the late-1960s, but perennially-assumed to be British, Sparks started out as an off-kilter glam rock homage called Halfnelson, comprised of brothers Ron and Russell Mael on keyboard and vocals, respectively. As they evolved into Sparks, they saw varying degrees of success on both sides of the Atlantic — kicked off in large part to Ron’s Chaplin-esque facial hair, which pretty much everyone thought looked like Hitler.

That kind of punk rock ethos a decade before the seeds of the genre started budding would define Sparks’ ability to stay ahead of the curve for their entire career. One of their first singles, as is pointed out, was titled “Computer Girl,” years before Kraftwerk. When punk actually got a foothold, it stood as a sharp contrast to the over-the-top operatic productions the duo had grown into, so they made an all-synthesizer album. And despite their tenuous moments in the spotlight, after 55 years and 25 albums, they continue to unintentionally innovate as they pursue their creative impulses.

As Schwartzman feared, the film reveals an astounding amount of information as the Mael brothers wade their act through five-plus decades of an ever-changing cultural landscape. Even my passive familiarity with the band associated them with the British rock scene (which wasn’t hurt by hearing Wright would be helming a doc about them), which was dispelled almost immediately.

Though The Sparks Brothers is more than a 140-minute fact check. Told by Wright with the same kind of “they are what they mock” sense of humor that Myers credits the band with partway through, it’s a loving examination of a band whose influence is so vast it will likely never be known. While it won’t guarantee that everyone will walk away a Sparks fan, it will be nearly impossible to walk away without being impressed by one of the most undefinable, creative, and outright persevering acts in music.

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