Alone among cult bands, Sparks have never for a moment thought of calling it quits. Even during the six parched years at the end of the 1980s, when the group — deadpan keyboardist/composer Ron Mael and his hyperkinetic younger brother, Russell Mael — couldn't find a label, they continued writing and recording music at their Los Angeles studio virtually every day. Now, as has often been the case over the course of their 50-year career, things are once again looking up. Their movie musical, "Annette," starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, will be opening this year's Cannes Film Festival next month and arriving in the U.S. in August. Until then, there's "The Sparks Brothers," a fond documentary by director and big-time fan Edgar Wright ("Shaun of the Dead," "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World"), which is stacked with tributes from such musicians as Thurston Moore, Bjork, and Flea and unexpected admirers like Jason Schwartzman, Neil Gaiman and Patton Oswalt. Says Beck, who's also on hand, "They may have given birth to other bands who don't even know that the lineage" of assertively clever electropop music "goes back to them."
Apart from being a stirring tribute to artistic determination, "The Sparks Brothers" is also a compact introduction to the group's music, which isn't a lot like that of other groups. How many bands could move with such seeming effortlessness from heavily electronic tracks like "The Number One Song in Heaven" to the cleverly mocking "Lighten Up, Morrissey" to "My Baby's Taking Me Home," a song whose lyrics consist entirely of repetitions of its title ("a hypnotic, great song," says actor-musician Fred Armisen)? There are also some beautifully wrought ballads, like "Out in the Cold" and "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth" (which has been covered, incandescently, by Martin Gore of Depeche Mode). Wright's documentary is an excellent primer for anyone looking to venture more deeply into this music.
As always, the Maels reveal zero details of their personal lives in the film. Were they too busy for that sort of thing? Quite possibly. They released their first album, "Halfnelson," in 1971, after producer Todd Rundgren was made aware of their work by his girlfriend at the time, Christine Frka — "Miss Christine," of the Frank Zappa-promoted girl group, the GTOs. (It's easy to go tumbling down the pop-culture rabbit hole of the Maels' career, but let us avoid that.)
The duo moved to London in 1974, assembled a band of British musicians, and recorded their breakthrough album, "Kimono My House," which featured a big Euro hit, "This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us." They also tried to set up a pair of movie projects (having both studied film at UCLA) with Tim Burton and the late French director Jacques Tati; neither of those worked out, though. In 1979, they came to the attention of disco god Giorgio Moroder, who produced world-beating hits for Donna Summer, David Bowie and Blondie. In the film, Moroder describes Sparks' music at that time as "the sound of the future." He took them into the studio to record "No. 1 in Heaven" — an album felt by some to mark the birth of synth-pop music. ("The sound of the 80s in the 70s," says Edgar Wright. "A huge influence," says one member of Duran Duran.)
Wright's doc follows the brothers back to California again, where they brought Go-Go's guitarist Jane Wiedlin aboard to record a dance hit called "Cool Places" and became a big deal on the powerhouse LA radio station KROQ. In 2008, they mounted a grueling 21-date stand in London during which they devoted each night to performing a different one of their albums in its entirety. What next? The Maels are now in their seventies, but they seem as dedicated to their art as ever (and nearly as energetic, judging by the latter-day concert footage in this film). Russell, probably kidding, says they're hoping that "advances in medical technology" will allow them to just keep going.
Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.