This documentary is an education for a raft of millennials and young people. Even for me, and I have the music taste of someone born in 1952. This ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of though, because Sparks have somehow eluded the fame of their contemporaries. “They are a band you can look up on Wikipedia and know nothing,” says Julia Marcus, a fan since the age of 12. But Sparks have a special place for many, especially those in the industry. “If you’re on a tour bus with a bunch of musicians, eventually the conversation will go to Sparks,” states Beck, the eclectic musician who defies definition much like Sparks.
Sparks defy definition because of their oeuvre’s sheer length and dynamism. After touring in the US and England in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Sparks achieved their commercial breakthrough with Kimono My House, which had a strong glam rock sound exemplified by the single ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us’. However, they proved to be the ultimate musical chameleons, assuming a new wave/synth-pop sensibility during the 1980s before moving into house and techno in the 1990s. Since then, they have added chamber pop, pop opera, neo-classical and electronic rock.
Of course, Edgar Wright’s film profiles this great eclectic mass in a far more interesting way than this review, drawing on a huge selection of figures who offer commentary, anecdotes and nostalgia. The stars are the Sparks brothers themselves, Ron and Russell Mael, who prove to be affable and engaging. They’re as playful as ever, indulging their offbeat energy for the latest influx of fans, about a dozen of whom were around me at the Sundance Londonscreening.
Ron and Russell’s enigmatic posturing may confuse or split opinion, but they were never affected or self-important. Rather, Sparks have always had a strong sense of irony, which may have hurt their popularity. “People denigrate humourous bands,” laments “Weird Al” Yankovic, “why so serious?” Whatever the reason, Sparks have always stayed true to themselves. They have never dumbed down, never sold out. And they’ve never lost their formidable energy, either. For example, in the late 2000s, they performed all of their 270+ singles over 21 show in London. That’s 21 albums in 21 consecutive nights – utter madness.
Wright chronicles all of this in a whopping 2hr and 20 minute running time, but he maintains a stimulating pace with his visual flair and genuine affection for the subject. Each viewer will have a favourite era of the Sparks’s life. For Wright, it seems to be their new wave period in the early 1980s, for this is when he discovered them on Top of the Pops. For me, it has to be their formative years in the late 1960s, which they lived and breathed in both sunny California and swinging London. It’s got to be the coolest zeitgeist of the twentieth century.