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In ‘The Sparks Brothers,’ the Mystery of the Band’s Sibling Dynamic Remains

Ron and Russell Mael don’t go in for a lot of introspective soul-searching. Their great new documentary, now on Netflix, honors their enigmatic nature while hinting at the brotherly bond that’s sustained their adventurous music for 50 years

Last Night in Soho is out in theaters, but it’s not even close to the best Edgar Wright film of the year. That one’s available for streaming on Netflix right now, and it’s his first documentary. Like all of Wright’s projects, The Sparks Brothers is a tribute to the pop culture he loves, but I don’t think he’s ever come up with something so affectionate. Over two hours and 20 minutes, the director makes the case for why you should care about Sparks, an L.A. musical duo fronted by siblings Ron and Russell Mael. 

Ron’s the elder, and he writes the band’s songs. Russell is the handsome, charismatic lead singer. They’ve been putting out albums since the early 1970s, none of which cracked the Billboard Top 40. They don’t have a signature sound. Sometimes they’re rock, sometimes they’re pop, sometimes they’re glam and sometimes they mess around with keyboards. The Sparks Brothers is an ingratiating primer, but one of the most intriguing things it does is it refuses to let you understand the dynamic between the two brothers. The documentary is a mystery with no answer: What makes these guys tick?

Wright interviews Ron and Russell, hearing about their childhood before going into some detail about each of their 25 records. A distinct advantage of profiling a band without much in the way of “hits” is that Wright isn’t required to focus a lot of time on a couple big singles, digging up juicy behind-the-scenes stories about how they were conceived. To be sure, Sparks had their highs and lows — the theatrical, weirdly engrossing “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” was a sensation in the U.K. in 1974 — but The Sparks Brothers isn’t burdened by the predictable trajectory of a rock-doc. For lots of viewers, the band’s entire catalogue is a blind spot, so whether a particular album was more “popular” than another really doesn’t matter. The documentary is more about celebrating an ongoing artistic mindset that’s ignored commercial considerations and just does whatever feels natural at the moment. Being a Sparks fan means being open to change: If you liked their previous record, the next one will probably not resemble it at all. 

With a lot of music films, the allure is getting to spend time with the band members, seeing what they’re like in unguarded moments. We’re given the illusion of intimacy, which sometimes might not be an illusion at all. (Think of something like Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, where you got to see a group come apart nearly in real time.) But for better or worse, Wright doesn’t dig for candid admissions or tearful recriminations: Ron and Russell remain the well-composed, infinitely controlled individuals they always appear to be. Whether it’s their cheekily absurdist album covers — maybe one of them is dressed in drag, maybe they’re tied up in the back of a speedboat — or their precise musical arrangements and sardonic, arch lyrics, there’s always been an element of presentation to Sparks. Never a put-on but always carefully constructed, the group’s different musical styles can feel like masks upon masks, a way of creating art without necessarily revealing much about oneself. (Even the fact that Russell sings Ron’s words produces a bit of distancing.) Likewise, in The Sparks Brothers, you “meet” the brothers without necessarily feeling like you “know” them — Wright avoids personal questions or deep probing of their psyches. You have to imagine that’s how Ron and Russell prefer it.

And yet, there are moments in which Wright hints at what must be challenging about working with your brother for 50 years. The Sparks Brothers compiles a starry collection of high-profile fans to talk about Sparks — everyone from Beck to Jason Schwartzman to Neil Gaiman, as well as former bandmates and collaborators — and it’s mentioned that there’s an interesting unspoken tension between Russell, who’s stylish and charming, and Ron, who with his Hitler-esque mustache and dour demeanor usually is propped up behind a keyboard, far from center stage. One’s a dreamboat, one’s aloof and caustic — with the dreamboat singing his brother’s prickly songs about failure and disillusionment. Is one brother channeling the other? Is Ron living vicariously through Russell, feeding him the vulnerable words he can’t bring himself to sing? These are the things Sparks don’t talk about, and they definitely aren’t topics in The Sparks Brothers

Normally, that potential interpersonal drama powers music documentaries — I’m reminded of Mistaken for Strangers, which probed the fault lines between Matt Berninger, famous frontman of the National, and Tom, his unsuccessful brother — but The Sparks Brothers demurs. Instead, it suggests we think of Ron and Russell’s bond as similar to that of a marriage — one that’s happy because they don’t air their dirty laundry. All relationships have their troubles, but Sparks have always presented a unified front — two peculiar men against the world. (Ron and Russell are so secretive in The Sparks Brothers that I still don’t know basic facts about these guys, like if they’re married or have kids.) What goes on behind closed doors isn’t for us to know. Their music is how they communicate, even if they seem to speak in code.

The puzzle of Sparks — both in their music and in the enigmatic quality of its members — is a big part of why they’ve earned their cult following. Fans love Ron and Russell because they keep us at a distance. Which doesn’t mean you can’t get on their odd, adventurous wavelength. “It hadn’t occurred to me, but the similarities between me and Sparks became more apparent to me as I made the documentary,” Wright said this summer when The Sparks Brothers opened in theaters. “A lot of the Sparks music is totally sincere in its songcraft and its emotions, and yet they still have fun with the form, and I guess I do a similar thing with my movies. I’m restless in nature. I don’t really want to do the same thing twice, and neither do they.” 

Since then, Sparks’ visibility has grown thanks to their association with Annette, which they co-wrote and scored. No doubt that Adam Driver film will spur folks to check out The Sparks Brothers on Netflix — just don’t expect the Maels or Wright to fill in too many blanks. Instead, what emerges is a portrait of brotherly affection wholly lacking in sentimentality or effusiveness. But you can express love in other ways, and the mindmeld connection between Ron and Russell is its own form of devotion. Sparks is a life project that keeps morphing as its members grow and change over time. Siblings don’t always have much in common beyond family. The Sparks Brothers is a testament to the unique, sometimes creatively harrowing path Ron and Russell have traveled together — one neither of them probably could have done alone. 

What more do we need to know about them than that?

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