Music fans of a certain age will have Sparks’ electrifying 1974 Top of the Pops debut seared into their memories. This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us was unlike any pop song we had heard before – operatic, cinematic, hypnotic and odd. But it was the keyboard player who was the talk of the school playground the next day. Ron Mael looked like a creepy android Hitler and the camera loved him.
This indelible memory is shared by many of the talking heads in Edgar Wright’s wonderful Sparks doc. Apparently John Lennon was so freaked out by what he’d witnessed that he rang Ringo and told him to turn on his TV: “Marc Bolan is playing a song with Adolf Hitler.”
In the film this mischievous anecdote is brought to life by animated puppets. Elsewhere Wright matches the Sparks brothers’ visual flair by using a variety of film media to illustrate their story. Apart from the monochrome talking heads and film clips from their long career there is a creative mash-up of cartoons, cut-and-paste and clay animation.
After nearly 50 years and 25 albums, the music of Ron and Russell Mael remains vital and relevant. Other musicians queue up to pay homage to their provocative outsider sensibility, their creativity and dedication to their art. Sparks are engaging company: playful, wise, funny and human. Wright’s camera follows them as they go about their daily lives and we warm to them even more when we learn about the hard times (“6 years of rainy days”) and the film projects with Jacques Tati and Tim Burton that got shelved.
At nearly two and a half hours The Sparks Brothers might challenge the stamina of non-believers. But Wright’s chronological doc has a lot to fit in. By covering each of their records he aspires to the daredevil and dogged spirit of a band who decided to play every one of their albums, one after the other, on consecutive nights in London in 2008 (with B-sides for the encores).
The Mael Brothers had an idyllic childhood in sunny California, clouded only by the death of their father, an artist who introduced them to “cool music” and took them to Saturday matinees. From the photos, his Clark Gable pencil moustache might explain Ron’s life-long homage. Sparks’ “jagged sense of narrative in their songs” perhaps came from often arriving at the cinema half-way through a film and trying to make up the rest.
They also had a cool mom who took them to see the Beatles twice. There they are looking fresh-faced and excited in audience footage taken from a concert in Las Vegas. Many years later Paul McCartney returned the compliment by playing Ron, alongside his other musical idols, in his video for Coming Up.
When trying to sum up what makes Sparks special some fans mention their unusual closeness as brothers, “some kind of magical combination of brother blood.” In contrast to other brothers-in-pop (Kinks, Oasis, Bros) they enjoy a unique symbiotic relationship, united by a singular vision and passion for music.
I once saw Russell Mael while on holiday in California in 1981. We were driving through Beverly Hills gawping at the film star mansions. A man who looked like Jim Morrison’s sister drove past in a beautiful lime green convertible. “Look! It’s that guy from Sparks!” Russell gave us a genuine full-beam smile. Another indelible memory.