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.
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.
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!
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.”
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.
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].
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 to himself 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.