For the uninitiated, it takes Edgar Wright, with his new film The Sparks Brothers, almost two and a half hours to explain Sparks. So the idea I can even attempt to do that here in a quick introductory paragraph is absurd. So this will be as short as possible: Sparks is Russell and Ron Mael, two brothers from California who have been playing together – with a whole host of different band members – since 1967. They became popular in England and have a very dedicated following (which includes Wright) and have influenced some of the most prominent bands that have ever existed. (To the point even Paul McCartney paid homage to Sparks in his video for “Coming Up.”)
So, from here, it’s best Wright himself (who is joined by Sparks themselves) kind of take over and explain Sparks and why he wanted to make a film about them, which gets its premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. All I’ll add is that my experience with Sparks wasn’t much more than seeing them on SNL when I was seven years old and being pretty riveted. (I ask both Russell and Ron about that experience, a night that involved both Andy Kaufman and Eddie Murphy.) And, here, Wright has made a wonderful film about Sparks and, even being pretty all-encompassing at almost two and a half hours, I found myself wanting more. Of course, Russell and Ron, who seem to kind of like the fact that their whole identity is mysterious, needed some convincing. (Also, at the end, we learn it’s quite possible they also want a Peloton.)
Edgar, did this take convincing to get them to do this?
Edgar Wright: I’ve known Sparks since I was five years old, after having seen them on Top of the Pops. And for a long time, they were a band that I was kind of intrigued by and sort of beguiled by, but sort of confused that they were still going. And every time they’ve come back into my life, they’re in a different genre and they would also seem to not get any older. So I would find myself kind of awed and sort of perplexed by this band. And this is growing up in a pre-internet age where you don’t necessarily have a lot of information about who these people are.
I remember that there were two things that happened that kind of started this off. When you’re a Sparks fan you sort of become an evangelist, where you’re like trying to turn everybody else on to Sparks. And part of the reason for making the documentary is I thought it would be easier to just show people this documentary than kind of pull people at dinner, “Oh my God, you will love Sparks.”
This will go further than a tweet.
Edgar Wright: Yes, exactly. And then I said, oh, I wonder if Sparks is on social media. So I looked at Sparks’s account and it said, “Sparks follows you.” And I was like, “Oh my God.” So I immediately followed them, and messaged, and got a response from Russell immediately. And I said, “Most bands don’t like manage their own accounts.” And he goes, “Oh, we do.” And within 24 hours, I was having breakfast with Ron and Russell at Russell’s house.
And then over the next couple of years I saw them twice live in Los Angeles. And both times I went with Phil Lord, who’s also a Sparks fan. And I said to Phil, you know, the only thing that’s stopping these guys from being as big as they should be is they need a documentary. I think it was also that thing of showing people YouTube clips of Spark. So I started saying how it would be great if all these clips are in one place. And Phil said, “You should make that movie.” And I was like, “I will.” I called them the next day and I asked if anybody ever approached them about doing a documentary. And they said they have, but have always been unsure about doing it. “But if you wanted to do it, that sounds amazing.” And as soon as I’d said it aloud that I wanted to do it, it was a vocal contract that I couldn’t go back on. So here we are, like three years later, with the finished thing.
Sparks were on SNL with Danny DeVito hosting. And Ron gave a soliloquy about Mickey Mouse. And I was seven years old and here’s a band talking about Mickey Mouse and then sang a song about Mickey Mouse, which was in my wheelhouse at seven. But as you said, without the internet that’s all I knew.
Ron Mael: [Laughs] Nice. We’re happy that Edgar was able to at least have that quick clip with Sparks with Danny DeVito in the documentary.
I went back and watched it. Danny DeVito was doing a face as Ron spoke. Then during the second song, “I predict,” Eddie Murphy goes under Ron’s keyboard with a camera and starts filming and we see Ron as “The Eddie Murphy Experience” flashes on the screen.
Ron Mael: Oh yeah, I remember it vividly. And the thing that really was surprising to me was I had done that kind of monologue, introducing to the song that we had called “Mickey Mouse.” I had done that on tour, you know, probably 30 times. But for Saturday Night Live, they had to write me out cue cards that really screwed me up. Because, you know, just not being able to just to do it off the top of my head. And Danny, you know, his reactions were priceless.
Andy Kaufman was there that night too. Actually, the whole cast of Taxi was there.
Ron Mael: It was because they had been dropped from, was it ABC?
Ron Mael: And so they were all there. And you know, we were also incredibly huge fans of Andy Kaufman. And to actually meet him, it actually turned out that Andy Kaufman was Andy Kaufman. I mean, it was not in the slightest bit a let down or an opening into an enigma.
Please tell me what it was like when Sparks met Andy Kaufman. What did you guys discuss?
Russell Mael: He had to go back to his hotel didn’t he?
Ron Mael: Yeah, yeah.
Russell Mael: To meditate before the taping. So he was, all the time, completely serious. There’s never, just in our brief exchange, there was never any frivolity or anything. It was all very in character of Andy Kaufman. You know, and it was intimidating I think.
Was he familiar with Sparks? He seems like someone who would appreciate what you guys do.
Ron Mael: Well, he wasn’t the kind of guy that you would hang out and he would say, “Hey, I love you guys.” He was just Andy Kaufman.
Edgar Wright: It is interesting. To get back to your initial question, “Was there any convincing that needed to be done?” I think one of the things is that Sparks is such an enigma, how do you tell the story without running that enigma? The thing for me – and this kind of speaks maybe to Andy Kaufman a little bit – is that the joy of it, for me, was finding out that it isn’t really an act. And I think, in this age where sometimes you don’t want to meet your heroes, it was a profound joy to me to find out that Ron and Russell are exactly who they sort of purport to be. And it was fun to sort of pull back the curtain and still find them standing behind the curtain.
For Ron and Russell, when you watch this finished film, what surprised you? Were you familiar with all these stories people were telling about you? Had you heard them before?
Ron Mael: Well, the surprise kind of came from the breadth of the people that were talking about the music and their appreciation of the band. We had no knowledge of that and just, you know, Edgar knows more people than we do. So just to see the kind of, not just musicians, but writers and actors, and also speaking about their love of different periods of what we’ve done is amazing. And also the assembling of people that weren’t necessarily famous. Like having a girl from 1975 who stormed the stage during the show. You know, it was amazing that somehow, first being able to find her, but that concert was something that stuck with them for all those years. You know, it was kind of mind-boggling to us.
A holy cow moment was when Stephen Morris of New Order said they were listening to Sparks when he was with Joy Division and recorded “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” obviously one of the greatest songs ever recorded. Had you heard that before?
Ron Mael: Us and Frank Sinatra!
Edgar Wright: What’s amazing to me is, in doing an oral history about the band, what was great about it is I could talk to Ron and Russell, and talk to them about what culture they absorbed: music and film and TV, how then that became Sparks. And then the footprint that spreads out from that into other creative realms, it’s kind of extraordinary. And even if you think that one episode of Top of the Pops that we talk about – you think about the people who are at home watching that are all people in bands that go on to be enormously successful. So watching that show are members of Sex Pistols, Joy Division, Duran Duran, Siouxsie and the Banshees. Just like everybody is watching that show. I had heard that story about “Love Will Tear Us Apart” before and I just wanted to get him say it on record. It’s like things where you’ve heard things second hand. It’s like, yes, he said it! It’s like, I got him to say on camera!
Ah, so that was a big moment for you. Getting it on record?
Edgar Wright: Well, I think it’s like where you assume these things? And maybe you hear them sort of second hand? And then there are some bands, as we say, in the documentaries who won’t admit to it. Which I think is kind of pretty disingenuous. It’s like, at least say that you saw it. The stage invader we found, we went out on Twitter and said, “If you have any footage or photos or any stories we’d love to hear from you.” And that lady, Julia Marcus, who was the stage invader, got in touch. And she wrote this lovely email about her side of the story. I said, “Get her to say that on camera.”
I keep imagining the reaction to this movie and a concert if we were all at a normal Sundance. After the pandemic ends, is there going to be a big to-do with this movie? I hope there’s going to be a to-do.
Edgar Wright: I hope so. There’s no reason why not. Listen, obviously, we’d love to be doing Sundance in a normal way. But at the same time we’ve been kind of like making this film for two and a half years. And there’s a certain point where we just want the world to see it. And so, yes, having never had a film in Sundance before – I’ve only been once before, when I was on the jury, like in 2015 – but that said, yes it would be great to be there and play afterwards and have a party. But that’s not to say that, A, we can’t do that in the future and, B, we’re just excited for people to see it. It’s one of those things that, in a way, me being an evangelist for Sparks and wanting to tell people how great they are, now this is the movie that’s going to do it for me.
Speaking of that, I’m glad this movie is all-encompassing. At almost two and half hours, at least as viewer, I think this covers a lot.
Russell Mael: We are, too. We are really happy that Edgar treated each era, and each album even, with the same detail as any other period. Because that was really important to us. Because Sparks means something different to different people, in different parts of the world, in different time periods. And so we were really happy that, like you said, that it is 2 hours and 20 minutes and it’s hard to edit down the story in a meaningful way to make it, you know, less thorough. And so we were just really happy that Edgar treated every era and every album with the same sort of intensity and detail.
Edgar Wright: I did experiment with different lengths of the cut. And to be honest, whenever I saw a shorter one, it was, as you might imagine, it was just less detailed. Thinner, less comprehensive. And usually when you see other music documentaries, they kind of sometimes skip over the failures. And for me with Sparks, the downs are as interesting as the ups. Sometimes the downs are more heroic. I mean, one of my favorite stories in the documentary is when they’re asked to make some music that you can dance to, and they literally do as a kind of “Fuck you” to the label. That’s amazing to me. But I kind of thought, ultimately, I love music documentaries. It’s like 2 hours 20 minutes long, and listen, if kids can sit through five episodes of Tiger King in a row, they can easily enjoy this.
We all have plenty of time these days.
Edgar Wright: [Laughs] And now we’d all be curious as to what your bedroom looks like.
[When this interview started, I thought it was audio-only and wasn’t set up for video. Wright guessed, correctly, I was doing this interview from my bedroom, which led to Wright, and Ron and Russell, to become curious about my surroundings that I wasn’t showing, even though the answer was, “I hadn’t tidied up.”]
It’s just the average New York City apartment bedroom. Except there’s an exercise bike in here now that I had to get because there’s a pandemic.
Russell Mael: Did you go Peloton?
Pelotons are pretty expensive, I was really surprised. I got this thing off Amazon for like $135.
Russell Mael: Really? Wow, lucky you.
I’m guessing it works just as well as the Peloton.
Russell Mael: I’m sure it does. I’m sure it does.
Less bells and whistles.
Russell Mael: Well, does it matter?
Yeah, nothing against the Peloton company, I’m sure they do amazing work, but I went with this one instead.
Edgar Wright: If you guys keep mentioning it in this interview we’ll all get a free one.
Russell Mael: That’s right! “All three of them just love Peloton! There’s nothing they live for but Peloton!”
Right, “This interview was brought to you by the good folks at Peloton.” Let’s cross our fingers and see what happens now once this publishes, maybe we’ll all get a gift in the mail.
Russell Mael: Do your best!
‘The Sparks Brothers’ premiered via the Sundance Film Festival. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.