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Reintroducing Sparks: Edgar Wright and Russell and Ron Mael on The Sparks Brothers

Edgar Wright’s career is full of high-energy tributes to the contents of his bookshelves, like zombie movies (“Shaun of the Dead”), action flicks (“Hot Fuzz”), giallo horror (his upcoming “Last Night in Soho”), and more. But the closest that Edgar Wright has come to making an out-and-out movie about creativity itself is “The Sparks Brothers,” his new 140-minute documentary about his favorite band, Sparks (read Brandon Towns' four-star review here). As it details 50 years of catchy songs and enigmatic lyrics from brothers Russell and Ron Mael, the movie celebrates integrity and innovation, and the  tenuous popularity of being such a singular creative force. Wright gives the band (and their 250+ songs) a loving sales pitch to a wide audience, with the endorsement of an incredible list of music legends who are interviewed. It’s the public appreciation the band has long been worthy of, from a filmmaker whose own appreciation of keeping things lively matches that of Sparks’ music. 

2021 is now becoming the year of Sparks. Not only did this documentary premiere to large acclaim at this year’s virtual Sundance Film Festival (I wrote about the film here), but Sparks will return to theaters again this August with the upcoming Leos Carax musical “Annette,” which they wrote the music for. Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and Simon Helberg star in the movie that will premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and is bound to make Sparks even more of a sacred name among those who celebrate the weird and the original. 

Over a Zoom call, we spoke to Wright and the brothers behind Sparks about their approaches to creativity, being self-aware without being too cute, a very minor scoop about the upcoming “Annette,” and more.

Aside from being about Sparks, this documentary feels to be very much about about creativity itself. Do you guys have any favorite tactics to get the juices flowing? 

EDGAR WRIGHT: If anything it was just a sort of aspirational to me ... I wanted to capture on film Ron and Russell’s dedication to their art. I certainly try and do it and do it day in and day out, but sometimes it’s tough. Having gotten to know them a little bit before I did the documentary, I was very aware of their dedication to the craft for all this time. I felt like that needed to be documented. I feel like I kept learning from them [laughs] to keep moving forward. It’s amazing. 

RON MAEL: The best thing is, don’t wait for inspiration. You have to kind of just do it, even when you really are not wanting to do it. But the only way that we prefer to do it is to just kind of push the whole process. It’s more enjoyable to wait for those lightning bolts to kind of come down, but they are a little too rare, at least in my situation. So I have to pursue them. It helps to be working at a keyboard or a guitar, and maybe lyrically just when you’re walking, things can kind of come. 

RUSS MAEL: My creativity kicks into gear once Ronny comes up with something creative [laughs]. 

RON: Russell has a studio in his place, so a lot of times now, we just kind of go in and just start working. It’s always just about doing it, even if you don’t feel like doing it, because there’s a lot of times [laughs] when you don’t feel like doing it. 

RUSSELL: The pandemic was actually a good source of inspiration, in a back-handed way. There’s a studio sitting right here, and while I wasn’t forced to be at his place so we couldn’t work together, I took the opportunity to try to come up with stuff here on my own. “I’m not going to sit here all day and moan about the situation.” I was doing stuff on my own that could be part of the next go-around of Sparks stuff. 

Credit: Anna Webber

Because you guys are the most creative people I’ve Zoomed with, I’m curious—how do you also deal wth failure, or the fear of failure? 

RUSSELL: I think part of it—hopefully that came across in the documentary too—is that fear is always sort of there, but it can’t be the end factor. If you’re concerned about it too much, then you’re going to make whatever you’re creating bland in a way, hoping that more people re going to like it. Sometimes that’s the recipe for disaster. Alex Kapranos spoke really eloquently about it in the documentary, saying that if you just do what you think your fans or your public is going to want to hear, then you’re maybe one step behind what you should be doing. 

Edgar, how do you feel about that especially as a filmmaker with a distinct voice, but whose projects always come with a great deal of expectation? 

EW: Well, I think if you don’t go into something with some kind of fear, that it may not work, that you’re not alive [laughs]. I think every film that I’ve gone into where I’ve done something new, or I have an idea of what I want, maybe I don’t know how to get it or just the execution of it is really challenging, you’re immediately on the tightrope walk already. The day you go to work complacent, it’s over. So, there’s not a day that I don’t go to work without butterflies in my stomach [laughs]. I think I have a high-functioning imposter syndrome. I read that Mike Nichols book recently, and I was thinking, even in his seventies, he still felt like he was going to get found out. And I remember thinking, Yeah, you are one of the most successful directors of all time! I think in a weird way, fear drives you in terms because it’s a bad thing if you get complacent or if you feel like you can be on autopilot. That’s not a good thing. 

Edgar, how did you find that footage of teenage Ron and Russ at the Beatles concert? Or am I hallucinating that? 

EW: It’s not actually from a Beatles concert. It’s from the "TNT Show," and in that montage it comes quite quick on the heels. You see Ron and Russ in the audience. How old are you there, like 16? 

RON: Probably. Or younger, as we remained. 

EW: [laughs] 

Do you guys remember that show? 

RON: Really vividly. 

RUSSELL: It was amazing, and we can’t believe someone spotted us in the audience. Because it happened so fast, I think the camera just pans across. You gotta be careful who you’re going out with at 16 years old, it could come back to haunt you. 

RON: The show is called the "TNT Show," but there was a previous show called “The Tami Show,” and that one, we also went to that. And both of those shows were amazing. 

EW: Who was on the bill for the "TNT Show"? James Brown? 

RUSSELL: The "Tami" one was James Brown. That performance he gives in that show is maybe the best performance ever by anybody. 

RON: But the music director for the “TNT” show was Phil Spector. And it had Joan Baez singing ... I thought it was one of the Righteous Brothers songs, with Phil Spector conducting the orchestra. That was a moment. 

Among the non-Sparks music featured in the movie, I was really touched by the inclusion of Bill Evans’ “Peace Piece” in a sequence about Ron learning to take up piano, and also your family's melancholy. What’s the story behind including that piece? 

EW: One of the most amazing things in the lead-up to this is that I asked Ron and Russell, “Would you put together a playlist just for me of songs you were listening to before Sparks existed? Your loves and music pre-Sparks.” And so they sent me this 85-track playlist, one of which was “Peace Piece,” and so that’s why I used it in the movie. 

RON: We were pleasantly surprised, aside from a piece of music that’s incredibly beautiful, it lent the perfect tone to that scene. That’s just one thing throughout all of Edgar’s films, his use of music is the right choice always. That particular piece, I had forgotten that was on our list. But it lent a really beautiful tone to that scene, a scene of us driving up to San Francisco after our father had passed away. It had just the perfect atmosphere. 

Ron, was there any Bill Evans influence on you, in terms of your aesthetics or appearance? Especially in the '70s and '80s? 

RON: In my dreams! I still have stacks of Bill Evans LPs. I tend to listen to things that I have no possibility of emulating, that are just general inspirations. And Bill Evans is one of those. 

Edgar, you've basically made a documentary that's a Sparks album, it's self-aware without being too cute. Which isn't unlike your previous movies. How do you pull that off? 

EW: Ron says in the documentary talking about the French new wave, he says about Jean-Luc Godard making movies and commenting on making movies at the same time. And I feel like Sparks have that knack of being utterly sincere in their craft, in the message or the emotion of the song, but also having fun with the form. But not to equate myself with Jean-Luc Godard [laughs], please let me stress that, but I think in a similar way that’s how I approach some of my movies, especially the comedic ones. They might be comedic but they are totally sincere in the admiration of the genre that they’re in. I think that’s something that like, there’s obviously a dangerous game to play. Some people might … love that, and some others will think, “Oh is this insincere? Am I laughing with them or are they laughing at me?” I think there’s something where you just have to tune into the wavelength basically. And when you do, there’s so much to enjoy. 

But one of the reasons that Sparks are talked about by all the talking heads in the movie, is that there’s more to unpack and there’s more to discuss. A band like the Eagles could be the biggest band on the planet in the ‘70s, but after a while there’s not anything else to talk about [laughs]. It is what it is! And with Sparks, I think there’s so much more, this endless layers upon layers. It just keeps fans talking about them and obsessing about them, and even with songs today that people are still discussing the meanings of. And that’s extraordinary, in the way that we pick apart Shakespeare and Chaucer—but I’m not saying they’re like Shakespeare and Chaucer!

RON: They’re good bands, though. [laughs] 

EW: I like Chaucer’s early albums more. 

RON: He started selling out later on, it’s kind of pathetic. 

RUSSELL: It’s tied all into this idea of “where does creativity come from?” Making decisions that you feel are the right decisions about where you draw the line. We think that we’ve gotten better over time editing ourselves, and when something doesn’t feel right you kind of go, “Let’s put it to the side.” It comes across in the documentary, but the subject of humor and music and that when you have humor, it can’t be profound too. Treading the line between the two is really interesting, I think being able to say stuff that on one hand … sometimes we have a reaction to our song that’s really great. And it’s, “God, I didn’t know if I was supposed to laugh or supposed to cry about a particular lyric.” 

Speaking of laughing or crying, I’ve got to ask one “Annette” question before I go. So—are the songs more in minor or major keys? 

RUSSELL: Lots of minors in it! 

RON: Yeah, yeah. You only write minor for Adam Driver. [laughs] 

EW: Let’s just call him Adam Minor from now on. 

"The Sparks Brothers" is now playing in theaters.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is an Assistant Editor at RogerEbert.com and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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