Movie Review: 'The Sparks Brothers' Could Have Been So Much More
This review originally ran as part of Fletcher Powell's 2021 Sundance Film Festival coverage. The Sparks Brothers is now in theaters.
Hey, over here.
I... I'm gonna say something... bad... about an Edgar Wright movie.
OK, I really don't want this to be the case. But I think sometimes we need to recognize that a person who loves a band wholeheartedly and unconditionally is not necessarily the best person to make a documentary about that band. Edgar Wright is a terribly entertaining director-- I've never been one who's gotten on board with calling him "visionary," as some of his biggest fans do, but he's wonderfully creative. And I was really looking forward to his first documentary, The Sparks Brothers, about Russell and Ron Mael, who make up the long-running band Sparks. They're the sort of band that other musicians love, and that people who "know" about can't stop talking about. So, yeah, my hopes for this movie-- that Wright would talk about an incredibly interesting pair of musicians in a way that maybe was different from your standard music documentary-- play a part in this. I figured even if this did turn out to just be a hagiography (which it is), at least it would be one that would belong to Edgar Wright. That's on me, and I'll own up to that.
But it's still true that instead, Wright hits one note, and holds that note for nearly the entire 135-minute running time. When the pitch finally changes (oh so slightly) about two-thirds of the way into the movie, I was so numbed by the drone of that one note that I had a hard time reacting to this (oh so slight) change. Again, I do not want this to have been the case! But when I watched this movie, I didn't think, "this movie could only have been made by Edgar Wright." I didn't even think, "this movie might have been made by Edgar Wright." I thought, "this movie could have been made by any one of thousands of people."
Sparks are great! And Sparks are strange! And for almost the whole film, that's what we're told, by many, many, many musicians and famous people (some of whom we see only once, for about four seconds-- I'm glad so many people like Sparks, or that Edgar Wright has so many friends [whichever it is, maybe both], but it's possible they weren't all necessary?), and we're told little else. Yes, we go through what may be the group's entire discography, but do we learn anything? Well, they're great. And they're strange. And they have never done things the way other people did. But... why? There has to be something beyond this that has made them so influential to so many other musicians (which they are, and there is). But we rarely touch on that-- we hear, "that bass line, who would do that?" and we move on. What is it? About that bass line? Or what is it, really, about that lyric, other than that no one else would do it?
Yes, I am frustrated. Frustrated by what this could have been. There is absolutely nothing wrong with loving a band, and telling everyone how much you love that band, and getting together everyone you know who loves that band to tell everyone else how much you all love that band. But doing that, and just that, for 135 minutes is not a great documentary. Wright has the ability to have made this something new, something different, something with an exciting narrative or unusual visual style (there are some fun touches! But we've seen it all before), and he still could have told us that Sparks is great. These things aren't mutually exclusive. In all honesty, I would have gotten a lot more out of a single episode of Song Exploder. And gosh, that's disappointing to say.