Sparks Brothers Film A Compelling Look At The Mael’s Creative Lives

After months of anticipation, the Summer Of Sparks® is finally underway when “The Sparks Brothers” was available on Video On Demand on July 9th in America. I missed the dicey Sundance Festival streaming and the film was not playing in my city [not that I’d be seeing a film in theaters yet]. It was in the next state, about a hour or so away. So we patiently waited and on Saturday, it finally happened.

numerous Up front there was much chatter about the celeb talking heads in the trailer. No one wanted two and a half hour of hoi polloi espousing love for the band like an infomercial. While that was a hook in the trailer, understandably; the famous [and not so famous] faces shot in crisp, dignified black + white lend the film an appealing Greek chorus aspect, where they float the tale along through all of the various periods of feast and famine in the long, 50 year adventure of the band.

It actually supports the hard work that the band have committed to over a long haul by showing that at each step of the way, as they have reinvented themselves numerous times, an audience connected with them at every step of the way. No matter how much popular success might have happened concurrently. Indeed, the success, or lack thereof was incidental to the connections made with the audience. And their dedication to their integrity becomes the leitmotif of their long career as examined. One which had seen periods of success and drought in similar proportions.

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A long-haired Sparks meets Dick Clark on American Bandstand

The fascinating aspect of their career that the film shows is that every few years, they have managed to obtain success in one disparate market or another. Sometimes enormous success [Top selling single in Germany for 1994 is shown with the award going to the band] by committing to the work process and ignoring the details and trends around them. And when they did react to their environment, as with their precedent setting collaboration with Giorgio Moroder, who had developed electronic Disco, they turned the prevalent Disco aesthetic from it being an anonymous production style with no unique point of view on its head. Because, if any charge simply cannot be leveled at Sparks, it would be in lacking a distinct POV. They actually have the strongest artistic POV I’ve ever encountered. As fans will attest; there’s nothing quite like a Sparks song.

The director, Edgar Wright, had not made a documentary before. He did not know that you normally have your second unit director carry all of the interview segments, so he conducted the interviews himself. That allowed those interviewed to have an assured level of intimacy with the camera, knowing the director was there. The remembrances of one time band members gave some unique insights. I especially liked drummer Hilly Michaels’ memories of hearing the band for the first time and being knocked out. Eventually drumming for the band a few years later. Their first producer Todd Rundgren wisely saw his role as getting their vision down sounding as good as it possibly could. If that meant drumming on cardboard boxes, then producing the best cardboard box drums possible!

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Sparks and Jane Weidlin and the closest thing they had to a hit in 1983 on American Bandstand with “Cool Places.”

There were moments of poignancy along the way. Losing their creative father at an early age shook up the family dynamic, with eleven year old Ronald probably having to mature at breakneck speed to take a more mature role in the family. Later on, their drummer Christi Haydon broke down crying at how the brothers spent six years trying to get a film made of the Japanese comic “Mai Psychic Girl” with Tim Burton only to be tossed on the waves of Hollywood indifference in Development Hell®. During which they still worked continually on music that did not get released. Living on money socked away for a rainy day. That 1988 – 1994 period was a curious blip in the timeline as delivered here. As punctuated by scenes of the year changing from “Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve.”

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Angst In My Pants era couture for Russel on American Bandstand

The joy of the film was that every album got a place in the story as a signpost. The band have 25 albums and each one gets screen time. Some, longer than others, obviously. The first three were pivotal as the band of outsiders defined and refined their vision, before moving to England and connecting in a big way with “Kimono My House.” One can’t begrudge the scenes of Sparks mania in England with some footage of shows boiling out of control with hormonal teens going gaga over these odd popstars. I really loved the interview of one lifelong fan shown reacting to her seeing footage of her 14 year old self grabbing Ron onstage with a mixture of compassion and chagrin.

And it was amazing seeing the band booked on American Bandstand many times over the first 20 years of their career as they eventually outlasted even that TV standard. The booking agent on that show must have really been a big fan. Their single with Jane Weidlin guesting managed to be their one Top 40 US single, and that Dick Clark interview dropped the bombshell that Jane was trysting with Russell at the time. I honestly had no idea, but the two of them were joking about it on American Bandstand.

Dick Clark – “Which one is older?”

Ron Mael – “You are, Dick”

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Ron takes the mic on American Bandstand

The film reached the “Steady Drip, Drip, Drip…” album of 2020 that I missed last year under lockdown [mental note to self…] and then took a valedictory lap with a bit of coverage of their upcoming film written for Leos Carax, “Annette.” With many years of trying to get their creative vision hitched to a film, it’s gratifying that the significant misses with Jaques Tati and Tim Burton were finally surmounted this year with this upcoming film. The brothers were always attracted to cinema, with an early student film of Russell [himself a film and theater major at UCLA] getting a showing early on in the film’s look at their youth. Tellingly, the movie featured their bandmate Earl Mankey, shown here as Jean-Claud Mankey, in a spoof of French art cinema as Ron cracked up thinking about it decades later. Now they are writing French art cinema 50 years later.

The film was an pretty thorough overview of their career [so far] and I at least got the answer to why Jason Schwartzman was in the trailer. His mom, Talia Shire acted in the BMX teen film “Rad” which contained the Sparks song “Music That You Can Dance To.” An artifact of the 80s soundtrack explosion that gave many bands a lifeline in the hopes of having the next “Flashdance” blow up on the pop charts. Okay, so it’s not all French art cinema with Sparks. One of the amazing things this film offered were perhaps far too many scenes from the infamous “Rollercoaster” theme park disaster film known for having Sparks appear as themselves [they producers tried, and failed, to get KISS® involved].

“Big Beat” era Sparks in “Rollercoaster” …filmed in Sensurround®!!!!!

Then the film tops that by having a celebrity who first encountered Sparks in that 1977 movie [more than a day late and a dollar short for the 70s disaster film boom] and years later found out that – OMG, Sparks was a REAL BAND!! Proving that even some of the worst decisions have unintended payoffs no one could have predicted. Seeing the film now pressured me into completing my Sparks collection. A challenging task even in the best of times with several of their CDs being difficult to obtain. I can remember the callow Monk who having encountered the band in 1980, with their tenth album, thinking at the time “there’s no way I can get into this band, they have too many albums!”

And then finally starting with one of their worst albums [“Interior Design”] and making of that my Sparks beachead. My wife was asked me yesterday if I had “A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing” to listen to and I had to ruefully say no. I only have about two thirds of their work. Good lord, there’s eleven I still don’t have…12 counting the “Annette” soundtrack! And now to that list I need to add this fine look at their creativity which on the face of it was a successful glimpse into their world, but we hope that the DVD will have potentially hours more of unused footage that will be a goldmine for Sparks fans.

-30-

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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11 Responses to Sparks Brothers Film A Compelling Look At The Mael’s Creative Lives

  1. I need to make the dive into their oeuvre but have been intimidated for … yeesh… 30+ years now… no… longer. Thing is, there are just so many bands that I need to do this with, bands that I have started this sort of archival archeological exploration (Neil Diamond for example, or Bruce Springsteen) and then there are the ones which I have started and am deep into the rabbit hole but have had to halt for one reason or another (Cramps, Bowie, Depeche Mode come immediately to mind). Sparks is just one of those bands that I think “Oh, yes, I want to check them out and get into them,” yet something always has a higher priority.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      postpostmoderndad – You are describing me from my point of entry in first hearing Sparks [1980] and the point at which I finally bought one of their albums [1990]. This lost decade was to my detriment. Thirteen albums later I can’t say there are many “higher priorities” left. Bands I foolishly thought were a higher priority then I now see as an example of my callow naiveté. I’m curious about what made you pump the brakes on investigating Bowie. Sure, he’s got some doozies that should stop anyone in their tracks. Just wondering the details in your case.

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      • Cash. I just don’t have the money to fill out the holes. I mean, at this point, and has been for a few decades, it’s not what is *IN* the collection, but what is “NOT THERE* and trying to keep up with releases as well as fill in the backlog… well, it’s just difficult without the money. I have everything of Bowie’s from Never Let Me Down onward, and I have about half of the output previous to that. Not for lack of desire, mind you.

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          postpostmoderndad – I totally get the money thing! It’s why I only have 13/25 Sparks albums! There was one night when I was young when I snapped and went out and bought almost the complete Roxy Music CD discography at once! At the time “Flesh + Blood” was not yet in print, so I waited a couple of years for that. But all the others were bought as 1st German pressings. Only “Avalon” wasn’t an expensive import. That is a rare level of expenditure that never happens with me. My collections take sometimes decades to find in dribbles and drabs. I recall seeing the US Oglio Sparks CDs from the late 90s. [80s and 90s titles] I could have bought all of them at once in Akron but it would have cost me $100+ and there was other stuff in the store too. At the time I just got the new one, “Balls.” Which was excellent!

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  2. Gavin says:

    Your description of the film makes it sound really interesting. I had been put off by the trailer,but will certainly be keen to see the dvd when it comes out.
    I have several albums,but have always found them patchy-the exceptions being Kimono.. and No.1 in Heaven. The Heaven and Hell double cd compilation is excellent though.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Gavin – I think the last 20 years have been sturdy to brilliant. The DLX RM of “Gratuitous Sax + Senseless Violins” has seen that one really rise in my esteem. The unreleased album of material was pretty spectacular, but my appreciation of the main album also ticked up several notches. I always felt that “Balls” was pearls before swine and under appreciated. It warmed the cockles of my heart when my loved one developed a crush on that one and was playing it frequently.

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  3. diskojoe says:

    I had a great time seeing The Sparks Brothers in the theatre a couple of weeks ago even though I was part of an audience of three. It was fun seeing them on American Bandstand. Dick Clark probably didn’t have so many laughs since the glory days of Paul Revere & the Raiders.

    As for how to start w/Sparks, may I first suggest getting a compilation such as the 1991 Rhino one or the one that just came out a couple of years ago. After that you can go to the period that you enjoyed the most.

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  4. James G says:

    I am jealous of anyone yet to know and love all of Sparks’ 25 albums…

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      James G – Welcome to the comments! I know, right? I finally jumped in at their lowest ebb, but I managed to finally get moving around 25 years ago. But there’s just so much that’s not easy to find or afford! The Bergman album desperately needs a reissue. I want to buy a CD without $80 of vinyl I don’t care about putting its “thumb on the scale.”

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  5. Scott says:

    I’m a great fan myself, but even I can’t love everything they’ve done. I have owned pretty much everything at one point but some have just not remained part of my personal collection. Despite the massive popularity, Gratuitous Sax is just a nineties dance album, albeit with one of the greatest song titles ‘I thought I told you to wait in the car’. Balls is another dance album that I don’t own, as is Music That You Can Dance To (although I love the title track, despite the doc showing that it was done purely to appease the record label), and the dull Interior Design. It took a long time for me to warm up to the disco sounds of Number 1 in Heaven and the bits of Terminal Jive I can tolerate.

    Out of character for me, the 70’s was their best time, from the debut right through to No.1, and that even includes Introducing Sparks which I have a special fondness for. Their 80’s output started strong with Whomp and Angst, but started to falter with In Outer Space and especially Pulling Rabbits. I sort of wrote them off for some years but sampled Exotic Creatures after it was out for a bit and was shocked to hear Sparks back to making rock music with their artistic flare. I backtracked the previous two albums and have gone forward (mostly) since. The last two albums, Hippo and Drip, could have been solid 10 track albums but at their current length there definitely is some filler. But even Sparks filler has its charms.

    I was shocked to find the documentary in my area and saw it opening night. I loved it and will snap up the BluRay when it comes out, especially since it’s said by the director that it will be loaded with extras.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Scott – Yes. It’s not lost on me how I finally broke down and bought their worst album [“Interior Design” which has one song that halfway passes muster… “The Toughest Girl In Town.”] first. Much of this was down to my cheapness, and not running across plentiful, used copies of everything. I bought that one in a CD dollar bin because it was the first cheap Sparks CD I ever saw around 1991. I would maintain that “Gratuitous Sax” is a hella great 90s dance album, as little currency as that had with me. I used to halfway write it off for years but examining it more closely revealed hidden depths of writing that were obscured by its stylistic tropes and uninspiring DAW production. I still say that “Tsui Hark” is B-side material, though! Especially with that full disc of unreleased material on the DLX RM in 2019! “Balls” flirted with techno I could love. “L’il Beethoven” was an amazing leap and gave them a lot of creative fuel for what has followed. I think my favorite Sparks album might be “Hello Young Lovers.” Caveat: Pre “No. 1 In Heaven” I only have “Kimono My House.” There’s a lot I need to hear yet. I also dearly love the single “Music That You Can Dance To” even if the surrounding album is tepid and lifeless. Talk about making lemonade out of lemons…!

      Here’s my quick rundown of what I do have:
      Kimono My House – 3.5/4
      No. 1 In Heaven – 4/4
      Angst In My Pants – 3/4
      In Outer Space – 2.5/4
      Music That You Can Dance To – 1.5/4
      Interior Design – 1/4
      Gratuitous Sax + Senseless Violins – 3/4
      Balls – 3/4
      L’il Beethoven – 4/4
      Hello Young Lovers – 4/4
      Exotic Creatures Of The Deep – 3/4
      Two Hands, One Mouth – 4/4
      Hippopotamus – 3/4

      caveat: I bought three of these at once and gave all of my attention to “No. 1 In Heaven.” I need to play “Angst” and “Outer Space” some more to get a better sense of what they offer.

      Like I said, if the Blu-Ray has hours of extras I will finally buy a Blu-Ray player!

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