Documentary Review: A filmmaker fanboy celebrates pop pranksters and innovators — “The Sparks Brothers”

You don’t have to be into the art rock/glam rock/proto-punk synth pop pranksters Sparks to get a kick out of “The Sparks Brothers,” the definitive documentary history that fanboy Edgar Wright created in their honor.

The director of “Shaun of the Dead,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” and “Hot Fuzz” is enthusiastic enough for all of us. And in this playful, insightful and thorough film — it’s two hours and twenty minutes long — that enthusiasm is contagious.

What Wright does — in telling us the story of Ron and Russell Mael, quirky Californians who blew up in Europe and never quite got there in North America — is let us share his and other generations of Sparks fans the delight of discovery.

In the ’70s and ’80s, most of us ran across Sparks the same way — on TV. “Oh, the band with Hitler on keyboards. You have GOT to see this!” Legions of their fans, from Wright and Mike Myers to Jane Wiedlin, Weird Al Yankovic, Fred Armisen, Flea and Beck, recount their encountering this “eccentric,” “mysterious” and “quite interesting, but you can’t quite put your finger on it” duo.

Many of us gave their odd art-rock/glam-act processed-vocals tunes a listen, a laugh and a pass. But others, many of them giving on-camera testimonials here, took the tack that early producer Todd Rundgren embraced.

“It’s this weird? Isn’t this great?”

The Maels? They just kept on changing, trying new styles, almost always ahead of the musical curve as they did it. They started out as the Halfnelsons (not their first band) sounding a lot like The Kinks, with a Zappa/Captain Beefheart sensibility. And every year or three, they’d evolve into something new, always with these satire-centric stage performances that played up Russell’s pop star handsome face and songwriter/keyboardist Ron’s ludicrous Fuhrer look.

That became their mystique. Actor Jason Schwartzman appears here and declares he doesn’t want to see this movie because he wants to preserve that mystery, but he “will see it, because I’m in it.”

That play-it-as-a-lark tone fits the music, appearing on LPs with titles like “Kimono My House,” “A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing” and “Angst in my Pants” (25 albums, over 500 songs in all). And it matches the movie, which uses comical moments from their stage shows, clay stop-motion animation, archival footage and fresh interviews to tell their story.

The songs can be deep, were often ahead of their time, and wryly comment on their pursuit of rock/pop stardom and just what it’s all about, this “business” of a music career that started in the ’60s and continues to this day approached through “creative recklessness.”

The suggestion that Sparks needed to make “music you can dance to” prompted them to cook up “Music That You Can Dance To,” described by British DJ Jonathan Ross as “a perfectly crafted sell-out pop song. — except that it isn’t.” Sparks could work in many a pop idiom, master it and mock it all at the same time.

They changed record companies constantly, and with every change, the backing band changed. Many of those musicians appear here, cheerfully grateful for their place in this story, not terribly resentful at their interchangeability.

In “Dick Around,” when singer/frontman Russell sings Ron’s lyrics, “All I do now is dick around,” he’s speaking a truth, ridiculing the fact that he’s letting us look behind the curtain, and celebrating the fact that guys their age (guys in their ’70s) still get to do just that — record, perform, put a lot of effort into repetitious tunes that sound like no effort at all.

They grew up on films, went to UCLA and at various points almost made movies with Jacques Tati (“Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday”) and Tim Burton (an adaptation of the manga “Mai”), and finally have one coming out this year (“Annette”). That should top their screen debut, as an amusement park band in the ’70s bomb “Rollercoaster.”

But they needn’t fret over their legacy and whether, as a “cult band” they’ll be remembered. Wright has paid the ultimate fan homage to Sparks here, a movie so adoring and infectiously fun that they’ll live on in the “music films” queue, later the “classics,” when it finally arrives on Netflix for as long as there is a Netflix.

Cast: Russell Mael, Ron Mael, Todd Rundgren, Jane Wiedlin, Giorgio Moroder, Pamela Des Barres, Mike Myers, Weird Al Yankovic, Jason Schwartzman, Beck, Flea

Credits: Directed by Edgar Wright. A Focus Features release.

Running time: 2:20

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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