Brimming with creativity, uniqueness and flair, art-rock pioneers Sparks had all the makings of a No. 1 band in the U.S.
But even after working with legendary producers Todd Rundgren and Giorgio Moroder, earning shout-outs from Paul McCartney and John Lennon and influencing the sounds of Kraftwerk and Joy Division, the group—fronted by exuberant pretty-boy singer Russell Mael and his quirky keyboardist brother, Ron—never achieved the level of success in America it won across the pond.
“Maybe it was this perception, when we were first starting, that what we were doing was antithetical to what was happening in Los Angeles [in 1967],” says Russell Mael. “We always turned to the U.K. bands because they were bigger than life and celebrated not only a strong, vital, vibrant musical sensibility, but also image was important when they came here looking sharp or provocative.”
Their more British approach on monumental albums like 1974’s “Kimono My House” and “Propaganda” and 1979’s “No. 1 in Heaven” and splashy appearances on BBC’s “Top of the Pops” won them a lifelong fan in future “Shaun Of The Dead” and “Baby Driver” director, Edgar Wright. With his new rockumentary, “The Sparks Brothers,” opening in theaters Friday, Wright has made it his personal mission to make the group equally popular stateside.
Featuring exclusive interviews with the Mael brothers, never-seen archival photos and home movies and plenty of Sparks videos and stage performances, the film chronicles the outfit’s career highs and lows across multiple continents and 25 albums—from the overlooked eponymous 1972 debut through two recent UK Top-10 smashes: 2017’s “Hippopotamus” and 2020’s “A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip.”
The movie also includes homages from musicians Beck, Bjork and “Weird Al” Yankovic, comedians Patton Oswalt and Mike Myers and author Neil Gaiman.
Ron Mael says he’s never been blind to Sparks’ sizable fan base, especially when touring, but even he was shocked by the impressive array of talking heads Wright assembled to praise the band for persisting to push the artistic envelope.
“To hear people that Edgar knows—all very special in all different areas of the arts and musicians of all different styles—it was something really surprising to us,“ he says. “And in the film, they were so much more eloquent than we are in explaining what we do.”
What made the group so appealing to some—their avant-garde album covers, humorous cultural critiques and insistence on repeatedly changing genres despite existing musical trends—also made it challenging for others.
For example, Sparks’ first show in Northern California, in the early-’70s, drew negative reactions from a closed-minded crowd at a Redding venue.
But over the years, the band built a following among Bay Area audiences, including Roddy Bottum, who co-founded Faith No More and Imperial Teen in The City and is interviewed in the film.
Decades later, a chance encounter between Sparks and another fan, Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos in Nob Hill led to a creative collaboration in the form of a supergroup called FFS and an eponymous album in 2015.
“San Francisco has always been a really special city to us,” says Russell Mael. “Every time we go, it holds that magic for us.”
In addition to spotlighting their rich musical history, the Maels hope “The Sparks Brothers” movie helps generate interest in their current projects.
There is an upcoming Sparks studio album, a major movie musical called “Annette” due out this summer, and an international tour planned for 2022 expected to hit The City in March.
“We’re always appreciative of people who’ve been around for so long,” says Ron Mael. “But we also hope that the documentary opens up what we do to more people, so that maybe we can reach further into a younger audience. We’re finding it online and hope it translates into the live shows as well.”
IF YOU GO
The Sparks Brothers
Starring: Russell Mael, Ron Mael, Beck, Flea, Jack Antonoff, Patton Oswalt
Written and directed by: Edgar Wright
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes