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SXSW 2021: The Sparks Brothers Review

Shining a light on the hugely influential art pop duo, Edgar Wright brings his quirky and infectious new musical documentary The Sparks Brothers to this year’s virtual South by Southwest film festival. Often known as quite the enigma, the brothers are certainly cult favourites and have grown a die hard fanbase over the years. Wright’s celebratory look back at their career is an accessible and in-depth introduction, with something for everyone.

The Sparks Brothers delves into the weird and wonderful back catalogue of enigmatic brothers Russell & Ron Mael, as Wright taken us on a musical odyssey through five decades and 25(!) albums worth of highs and lows in the musical business. The duo are repeatedly described as underrated, over-looked and yet hugely influential on the pop rock scene, with many of Britain and America’s favourite musician’s citing the duo as their favourite band. Wright chart’s their wonderfully creative legacy, along with their admirable persistence to stay true to themselves and not change their sound for studio labels.

Opening with a dive into their early lives, it’s clear to see how their early fondness for French New Wave and love for English bands such as The Who, Pink Floyd and the Kinks influenced their creativity. Forming numerous musical outfits at UCLA, such as Urban Renewal Project and Halfnelson, the duo only really gained recognition when they headed across the pond to England. Thanks to a brilliantly hilarious ‘Frequently Asked Questions about Sparks’ section, Wright gets us newbies up to speed with the band, adding plenty of context to their journey and musical ventures.

Their early career was full of inevitable highs and lows, but thankfully their iconic performance of “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us” on BBC’s Top of the Pops really helped catapult the band, reaching number 2 on the charts. Their performance caught the attention of The Beatles(!), with Paul McCartney even referencing Ron in his music video “Coming Up.” Wright admirably runs through each album of their varied discography, along with their ever changing sound and band members. The duo constantly reinvented their sound, evolving from pop to to prog-rock to electro and even disco, and while they gained commercial success and a devout following, they also had their fair share of flops.

Wright also lifts the lids on the two brothers’ perceived personas and stage caricatures, delving into the ups and downs of their career. Russell was always considered the flamboyant heartthrob leading man, while Ron was known as the scowling Hitler-esque, silent type who wrote all the songs. It’s clear to see Ron is very different to his stage persona, hilariously commenting “every record I write, I try to make it hotter than your mum could be” and the two brothers have a brilliant deadpan wit which they interject throughout the documentary. They do however remain tight lipped on their relationships, except for Russell’s brief fling with Jane Wiedlin. There’s a cheerful persistence to the duo, along with an admirable passion for creativity, even despite the fact that they’ve never quite made as a mainstream success.

Wright features an impressively star-studded array of interviews, with over 80 individuals involved, shot in a stylish black and white format. Previous band members and co-workers are included, along with fellow musicians including the voice of Bjork, Duran Duran, New Order, Pete Townshend and the Sex Pistols. A vast array of famous fans such as Neil Gaiman, Mike Myers, Mark Gatiss, Jonathan Ross, Adam Buxton and Patton Oswolt are also interviewed. The British director uses a great mix of media with archive footage, performances and photo reels, along with quirky animation and paper craft motion graphics. The documentary is a whopping two hours and 15 minutes, but thankfully the pacing is snappy, with plenty of added heart and humour. And yes, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost briefly appear, playing John Lennon and Ringo Starr!

Verdict

The Sparks Brothers is such a fascinating & vibrant look at the duo’s musical career, with a fun delve into tons of archive footage & star-studded interviews. Edgar Wright has created such a joyful celebration of the quirky duo’s hugely impactful back catalogue.

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