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‘The Sparks Brothers’ digs into the cult of the rock duo. A deeper dive is even more fulfilling.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 6/17/2021 Mina Tavakoli
Ron Mael, Russell Mael are posing for a picture: Ron Mael and Russell Mael of Sparks. © ANNA WEBBER/Anna Webber / Focus Features Ron Mael and Russell Mael of Sparks.

Gimmicky though it may be, the cinematic tradition of grouping men who know both when and when not to shut up will always feel like solid comic algebra. One silent type, plus one or two louder counterparts, usually equals a kind of humble harmony. Harpo Marx’s muteness seems to turn up Groucho and Chico’s physical volume. Silent Bob makes Jay’s stoned doofery almost sentimental. Even Teller brings a shade of mystery to his idiot co-star. The math is elusive, but when the calculus works out right, the formula can give the vague texture of poetry to anything from a card trick to a hit in the nuts.

It takes a strong, steady grip to carry a well-worn bit from the screen to pop music — a format that’s accepting of, though not exactly kind to gimmickry — yet the brothers Ron and Russell Mael, who play in a glamorous and confusing band called Sparks, have handily taken the heritage across the medium and built something like a home out of it. Across much of the visual evidence of the band’s existence in the past half-century — music videos, public appearances, late-night talk shows, the interiors and exteriors of each album — the ancient equation is apparent.

In their 1974 debut on “Top of the Pops,” they perform “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” — a baroque, vaudevillian, acrobatically difficult-to-sing pop song — as Ron leers silently at Russell with blood in his eyes. Russell looks a bit like Jim Morrison; Ron, an underfed Chaplin. Staring from his seat at the piano, Ron’s gelid gaze is sphinxian, murderous, as if he would love to get the song over with and put a knife in his brother’s chest. (A few albums later, a press shoot would feature a handful of photos of Russell stabbing Ron in the back with a cleaver.) Volumes of their videos seem almost canonically devoted to both partial silence and total violence. There’s footage of Ron pulping Russell in a boxing ring, Ron getting pied, Russell getting made into a hideous puppet. My favorite album cover of theirs — “Propaganda,” from 1974 — has them ripping across the English Channel while bound and gagged on a speedboat.

All the aforementioned abuse suggests that Sparks is something like a live-action Tom and Jerry act. This is only partially right. Sparks is more like a hybrid blend of homages that have somehow accomplished the task of becoming their own genuine American institution. They’re shuttlers of the spirit of slapstick and the stoic, but they’re also the pop lodestars of choice for a tranche of some of the most important figures in modern music since Elvis. Sparks may figure softly in the U.S. imagination, but they carry a powerful shtick.

Music documentaries err toward evangelical devotion to their subjects, but, and at least anecdotally, it seems that the dominant mood surrounding a typical Sparks fan is something closer to dumbfoundedness than mania. “The Sparks Brothers,” director Edgar Wright’s sprawling paean to the Mael men, is both testament to and defense of this theory. The film is a plunge into the objectively unreasonable legacy of a band that spans the course of 10 presidential administrations, has written 25 albums and counting, and bears an involuntary allergy to traditional commercial pop stardom. What it does more effectively, though, is interrogate the incalculable equation the brothers pose. It is an exercise in trying to figure out the problem of fame. It is an attempt at giving logical proof for something entirely illogical. It is a hymn from a fan to an act that — miraculously and perversely — refuses to add up.

Russell Mael et al. standing in a room: Bothers Ron, left, and Russell Mael of the band Sparks. © Anna Webber/Focus Features Bothers Ron, left, and Russell Mael of the band Sparks.

Even if you have never heard Sparks proper before, I can almost guarantee you have at a slant. We live in the world that Sparks built. They're in the genetic and psychic makeup of '80s pop, in "Weird Al" Yankovic, in the Ramones, in Devo, Sonic Youth, in the entirety of aughts-era dance-rock. If the music is White and freaky, there is a reasonable chance that the authors of your track in question have heard Sparks. Listening to a few Sparks singles has the effect of finally meeting the parents of someone you've known for a long time.

The film’s legion of talking heads (among them: Thurston Moore, Flea, Mike Myers, Fred Armisen, Beck, the faceless voice of Björk) spend much of the film charmingly struggling to articulate just how much of a crater the band left in their hearts or art. New Order’s Stephen Morris shakes his head solemnly as he notes that when Joy Division was recording “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” the band was listening to only two records: a collection of Frank Sinatra’s greatest hits, and Sparks’ 1979 album, “No. 1 in Heaven.”

Vince Clarke, principal songwriter for Depeche Mode and Yazoo, tells the camera that he flat-out “just stole from Sparks.” Comedian Patton Oswalt points out that the band has “throwaway riffs that other bands have built whole careers out of,” while Jack Antonoff — the near-ubiquitous producer to an outsize number of artists who have occupied the Top 40 across the past five years — shruggingly declares that “all pop music is rearranged Sparks. That’s the truth.”

Wright — out of necessity, or sanity-preservation — moves chronologically, bulleting each of their 25 albums and chasing Sparks' hope for fortune and adoration across their many troughs and peaks. The main tension here is fame, as in — where could they get some? After a few albums under the guiding wing of their wise and swaggering producer Todd Rundgren, they conceded that their music wasn't quite right for the gleam and neon of their hometown, but for the exotic, grayer, damper island across the Atlantic. The fact that the British loved Sparks seems only natural. Britain had a greater appetite for peacocking anomalies like Bowie, Bryan Ferry and Marc Bolan. As writer Paul Morley attests in the film, they were "the best British band to come out of America."

The U.K. would be a home to their happiest moments — a reliable muse, in albums such as the bubblegummy 1974 piece “Kimono My House,” which earned them a No. 4 on the U.K. albums chart (as well as a letter from a 15-year-old Morrissey to NME, who later cited the album as the reason he entered songwriting at all) — but consistency in reception was never their forte. They would respond to their stimuli always somewhat inappropriately for the era, always slightly off.

The beauty of watching Wright course through Sparks’ many-chaptered saga is that, despite how dissimilar each album may sound from the others — synth-rock, glam rock, British music hall, eurotrashy hi-NRG, Rodgers and Hammerstein stuff — there is a constant, Sparksian attitude across each. They’re drawn to giddiness, feverish emotional periods, adore creating cinema out of their chosen forms. When they worked with Giorgio Moroder during an era where disco was a pejorative word, they would create an album that would not only embody disco’s hedonism and earn them a Top 20 single in the U.K., but would, according to writer Simon Price, “accidentally invent every synth duo of the decade that followed.”

When they were ready to briefly retreat from synthesizers, they would release a string quartet- and marching band-indebted album titled “Indiscreet,” which flopped fantastically. When a label head suggested that they “really should write some music that you can dance to,” they released 1986’s “Music That You Can Dance To,” a garrulous album of club tracks that both managed to make fun of their assignment and chart a single that would be used in earnest in the European clubs they mocked. When grunge gripped the United States, they released 1995’s “Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins” — perhaps the un-grungiest album possible — and cracked the Top 10 in Germany with a single.

“The Sparks Brothers” does not deign to offer any mystic reason as to why they are as they are. As part of what seems like a credo, the brothers are ruthlessly private, reluctant to rope in anything like intimate biography into a biopic. Instead, we see shots of the two shuffling toward their twin desktop computers each morning. We watch Russell, now 72, sleepily boil water at home next to a toaster in the shape of Hello Kitty. They get coffee, lift weights, take brisk walks at the same designated spots every day. They work from sunup to sundown, Monday through Saturday, with no budget for leniency. What becomes extremely clear is that their endurance for creating music is plainly the product of a neurotic, serious, deathless motor. They have an extraordinarily rational policy toward the absurdity of their art. There is no gesture at any confounding extramusical tension, no salacious drug or love stories — they are pure Sparks, pure discipline, filled with untrammeled hope for greater recognition. The effect is hagiographical, but in their case, perfectly believable.

Cult artists necessarily pang reverence in us — doubly so if they’re as categorically avoidant as the Maels. Sparks’ human need for validation seems like an impressively ordinary impulse contrasted with their extraordinarily uncommon work. They’re closer to the spirit of conceptual cinema, stuntmen, even comics in that they take a single idea and execute it — frighteningly, diligently — and wonder aloud whether the act will land. This makes Sparks sacred — to Wright, to the hundreds they’ve influenced, to the countless that adore them — because they represent the unsolvable problem of how to be loved at one’s most natural.

© Jake Polonsky/Jake Polonsky / Focus Features

There is a scene at the very beginning of the film — a split-second, easy-to-miss flicker of footage — wherein Danny DeVito gestures off-screen, and yells into an audience, "my friends, Sparks!" It's from their performance on "Saturday Night Live" in 1982, in which the two perform a punky track titled "Mickey Mouse," a paean to the cartoon. During that same season of SNL, a comic named Andy Kaufman was part of the cast.

Kaufman was known best for performing a type of Svengali comedy that was confusingly unique — he was near-mute on talk shows, performed emotionally reckless, divisive acts (like when he fought professional wrestlers, lip-synced to “Mighty Mouse,” or impersonated Elvis) — that would invariably leave a room both dumbstruck and provoked. His performances were about the art of performance itself — how it could be pushed, tampered with, brought to its logical conclusions. He was a comedian’s comedian, in the way that Sparks are musician’s musicians. To call them out-of-touch would be to miss the finest point about them: They stay in control of their phenomena.

Ron and Russell don’t carry Kaufman’s utter, fatal, impenetrable reserve, but both artists share a certain liquefying approach to their formats. Both were producers of an art that was ever-changing, earnest in its adoration of their practice, and destabilizing in their strangely virtuosic absurdity. It’s work that agitates — even crowbars — its way into a heart. I like to imagine Kaufman as a Sparks-type. Or, rather, Sparks as Kaufman-types. True committers to their bits. Inventors of new formulas with classic ones. Watching Wright wrestle with the equation the Maels still offer is wonderfully impossible math.

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