With the advent of the internet, it’s become easier for musicians to infiltrate the mainstream. That band you loved when you were in high school but no one else in town heard of? You know, the one that was your hidden secret only shared with your closest friends? Now you can give out a streaming link to their music or get their permission to use that song you love on YouTube. Everyone knows them. Especially if they’ve been recording since 1970, had 25 studio albums, and are still playing to this day. So how come you probably don’t know about Sparks? Filmmaker Edgar Wright certainly wonders why.
The seemingly mysterious brothers Ronald and Russell Mael have been riding the waves of the popular music scene, receiving critical praise every decade, but still have somehow stayed under the pop culture radar. Wright, the director behind classics like Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, wants to change that.
With his new documentary, The Sparks Brothers, which is having its premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, Wright shines a light on the entire career of the brilliant world of Ron and Russell Mael. This includes work on their new musical Annette, which stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, and is directed by Leos Catax. We had the opportunity to sit down with Ron, Russell, and Edgar to discuss just what makes the story of Sparks, so special.
Was there a relationship between Edgar Wright and Sparks before this project started?
Edgar Wright: I had been a fan for a long time. Before making the documentary, Sparks was so enigmatic that I wasn’t really sure where they lived or whether they were from planet Earth. But then one day, I think it was in 2015, I was in Los Angeles writing Baby Driver in an office on the lot in West Hollywood, and my friend Michael Bacall[co-writer of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World] was in the office with me, and we were talking about Sparks.
I’d become by this point, as a lot of Spark fans are, like a full-on evangelist. Like if you’re talking about music, at some point I’d turn the conversation around to Sparks. And [Bacall] knew one Sparks song, “All You Ever Think About is Sex.” So I said, “Oh wow, listen to this.” So we ended up listening to a ton of albums. Then I thought, “I wonder if Sparks are on Twitter?” So I found a Sparks account and then I saw, “Sparks follows you,” and I was like, “Oh my God!”
So I followed them back, but I wasn’t already following them, so clearly not that big a Sparks fan. [Laughs] By fault I messaged them and said, “Hey I’m like a really big fan I saw you following me. Is this really the band?” Then Russell replied and said, “Yeah, this is Russell.” And I said, “Oh, usually bands have a PR person who runs their account.” And he said, “Not us.” So the funny thing is after having known and loved this band for decades, it’s just a funny thing I’m talking to them, and they’re also like only 20 minutes drive away from me.
Within 24 hours, I was having breakfast at Russell’s house with Ron and Russell, and that’s when we met for the first time. I think at that breakfast you told me about Annette. Maybe it was in kind of in the works. When we first met there wasn’t any sort of talk of a project necessarily; I was just meeting them as a fan.
But then, I saw them live a couple of times and I sort of got it into my head that the thing that was stopping Sparks from being as big as they should be, was there was no overview. It started to kind of annoy me as I watched documentaries, and sometimes I felt like, “But, why isn’t there a documentary about Sparks?” And I said this enough times to enough people that it kind of came to a head at a Sparks gig in 2017 where I was standing in the VIP balcony.
Me and Phil Lord had gone to see Sparks together. And I said the same thing to Phil. I said, “You know what, Sparks really need a documentary about them. I think that would really push them over the edge. You could tell the context of them and explain to people how they were sort of the originators of most of these genres.”
And Phil said, “You should make the movie!” And I was like, “Ah,okay, I will!” So then I mentioned it to Ron and Russell after the gig, and as soon as I said it out loud that I want to do a documentary about you guys–it’s not something that you can promise and then take back. So here we are in 2021 with the finished film.
Ron Mael: Before meeting Edgar, we were huge fans of his films. So it wasn’t like we had to Google “Edgar Wright” to find out who this guy was that was coming to breakfast the next morning. So it was just an easy relationship to further. It just worked out so well because it’s a mutual admiration society.
Russell Mael: To embark on a documentary, you really have to have a dedication and a focus, and just stamina to do a project like this. In a certain way it’s a little different even than a feature film where there’s no parameters. The story can continue forever, sort of. Where do you stop, where do you start? It’s kind of this nebulous amount of material, a vast amount of material, and there’s no real ground rules.
To be able to hone in all of those things about a band with a 25-album history and then entertain on something as vast an array of a subject matter as that[is tough]. You have to have that real focus and stamina to want to do that. So we were really ecstatic when it was Edgar, who’s not only our friend but to be doing this film, which we thought could be something amazing, and it is. We’re just just ecstatic with the results.
Edgar, you want to introduce Sparks further into the mainstream, but very early on in the film, Ron and Russell mention that maybe they’re a little worried about having people know too much about you. As the process went along, was it easier just to let out all these stories?
Russell: Initially we discussed with Edgar that part of the appeal we think for people that are really aware of the band is that there isn’t that much personal information out there, or that that everything that that they know about the band is via our music and via the image they have of the band via the album covers and seeing us on TV.
To unveil too much of that information that is more personal stuff, the question was, “Does that lessen the aura that people might think of the band having?” It was discussed what would be a good kind of division. How much you should share with the public and how much can still be held back from revealing. We think there was a really good separation in the amount of what was said and what was not said about the band.
Edgar: I just want to say I think all of those things just add to the legend… Because the music is just so imaginative and far reaching, seeing the more normal things about you–as a fan–I find that even more impressive. It doesn’t go the other way where it’s like, “Oh that boring.” It’s more along the lines of “my God, this is where all of this came from? These guys?” I find that mind blowing.
Ron: I mean it’s not all that damaging to our image to be seen in football uniforms [in high school] you know. [Laughs] So it just kind of adds to the incongruity of the whole situation.
Edgar, you’ve called your films Trojan Horses. You bring people in, thinking it will be one thing and then it turned out to be something else. For Ron and Russell, does it almost feel like you’re tricking people in the same way? You present this beat that people can dance to, but then you listen to the lyrics and all of a sudden this whole new level.
Russell: That was one of the things that we were really happy with in the documentary, that the lyrics were treated as a really big portion of the film. Not many documentaries that deal with pop bands will do that. We were really happy that the lyrics were seen as having big importance within the film. It’s not only discussing the music or the image of the band. We don’t see too many documentaries where they actually speak specifically about lyrics within songs.
Having someone like Neil Gaiman talking about the lyrics of Sparks or even Flea waxing so eloquently about Sparks lyrics was really important for us that that side was treated so well within the film. I think that that makes it so much richer than just discussing the music. We don’t know of many documentaries that really have delved that deeply into the lyrical side of bands.
You also covered so much. There’s only two albums that were not covered in their entirety in the film.
Edgar: I think that things like [the album] The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, we didn’t have time to get into. I think we do cover all of them, because I feel like it was something where it became a thing that once you’d started doing this, it has to be that comprehensive. You see this with recent documentaries. I really liked, for example, the Bee Gees documentary, however I was kind of a bit bummed when they didn’t cover the Sergeant Pepper movie, at all. I was like, “Ah, I want to hear that story!”
In a way, with Sparks it was something where the misses are as interesting as the hits. And the reasons things don’t connect, that’s an important part of the story. You can’t have the ups without the downs. Most music documentaries are like, “Hey we’re the Beatles and we’re flying high and then we split up.” Like the Rolling Stones documentary goes up to the start of the ‘70s and then just stops [Laughs]. With Sparks, you have to, you have to draw the whole graph, and the downs, the misses are as important as the heights, and also some of the best stories.
So once we had started doing it, it was a case where I can’t just skip over something, I have to tell the whole story. When you get the opportunity to do it as a fan it’s like, I can’t not tell the whole story, and I’d be kicking myself if there was something that was missed and people said I wanted to hear about Introducing Sparks. But we cover it, so it’s ok.
I hate putting genre labels on stuff, I hate boxing things in, but if anybody talks about Sparks music, it’s always going to be Pop or it’s going to be Synth Pop. Do you feel that your music kind of gets mislabeled here and there?
Ron: Well, whenever it is labeled, I think it’s mislabeled in a certain sense. We’re really happy about the documentary covering all those periods, so we aren’t just that glam rock band Sparks. It’s much, much more than that. Through all those periods, we never label ourselves as any of those things. It’s always been other people. I mean no offense to journalists, but journalists have to kind of find a slot for you and we always felt that we were in a certain way, operating outside of all of those things.
It just seems to minimize the music when you put those kind of labels on anything. Whether it’s self serving or something else, we felt our music was more important and timeless in a certain sense than that.
That also goes back to the point that there are misses here and there, but it seems that you guys had the availability to do what you wanted to do, pretty much your whole career. Nobody ever said, “You can’t do that.”
Russell: That’s the one thing that we’re still proud of. We’re not masochists and we obviously enjoy having commercial success when it comes around, but when it does come around, it’s not been us doing something different than we’ve always done; it’s just been the circumstances surrounding it that have made certain albums or songs become more visible.
That vision that was there from day one and when Todd Rundgren first took a stab at Sparks… [he was] the only person that took a chance on Sparks. In the beginning, the sensibility that we had then is the same sensibility that we have now, and we would never want to water down that sensibility in search of something that may be more widespread commercially. It would probably fail anyway, if we even had the ability to figure out what that is that’s commercial. Especially nowadays where everything is so fractured in the whole music area.
No one knows what that surefire thing is. That feeling that maybe if you do that kind of music and you’re going to be huge on Tik Tok or that sort of thing. So we’re just proud that we’ve stuck to our vision, and people have congregated towards it at various times in bigger ways than the other. But now in the end, we’re just happy that what we’re doing [what] feels as vital as it did from day one.
Edgar, music plays such a large part in your films, but we haven’t heard any Sparks music in your films yet. Will Last Night in Soho feature some Spark songs?
Edgar: No [Laughs]. I will say there was one time I tried to use a Sparks song in one of my films. I tried to use “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” in Hot Fuzz. But here’s the thing, and this is a credit to Ron and Russell, their music is not easy to use as wallpaper audio, because it’s so vivid, not just in terms of the songs but the lyrics are so evocative.
You can’t just have Sparks in the background, not easily. So I tried it and it didn’t quite work. It would have been better in a Baby Driver style, where I design the scene to go with the song, but I was trying it after the fact.
There were bits that were great but… I remember putting on the scene, it was actually in the scene where Simon Pegg is fighting Timothy Dalton in the model village, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us.” However, there was a point where, as a fan, I’d be watching the scene and I’d start listening to the song [and think] maybe that doesn’t work? Because now I’m distracted by the song in a given way. So I think that’s the thing, I haven’t used [a Sparks song] yet but I would say that’s because Sparks can’t just be on in the background.
Ron: One reason why there aren’t a lot of cover songs of Sparks is because other musicians hear them and they think that version is so stylistically entwined with the song itself, just the way that it actually is done that there is no way for them to do an alternate interpretation of it.
Edgar: You’ve done some of the best Sparks covers yourself. Some of the songs on Plagiarism, there’s a couple of them that are better than the original. Maybe ”Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat” and “Change,” I think those are superior to the original version.
We will also soon see your feature film Annette. I know you had the issue with not being able to get your other film off the ground, back in the ‘80s with Tim Burton. But is it a case of actually being happier that you can have a project like this come out now, with the availability of social media and star power can help bring a bigger notice to it?
Russell: Well, we’re happy that in the end, it’s going to be happening; the release of Annette and having two films this year. I mean, having a documentary by Edgar Wright, that would have been enough. But having the other film that we’ve worked on for eight years finally see the light of day, and potentially be of interest to a lot of people with Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard and directed by Leos Carax… having those elements kind took on another level from when we first had written and first envisioned it eight years ago when it was potentially going to be just the next Sparks album.
Then it took on a whole new life as a movie and then it escalated once Adam got involved. In a way, just having it happen now, maybe it’s part of the whole saga of Sparks? It never rains, but it pours. That’s going to be the situation for 2021. Now we have two films, who would have thought?
Edgar: It’s not too late for Tim Burton to go into production on Mai, The Psychic Girl in 2021 as well.
Russell: That’s right!
Edgar: Then you get the hat trick.