Director Edgar Wright has shifted from inspired genre exercises like Shaun of the Dead to music documentary, with mixed results. The Sparks Brothers is an ambitious chronicle of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, who have led various incarnations of their band for half a century. There’s a terrific 100-minute portrait here – unfortunately, it’s muddled in a 140-minute movie.

It’s not for lack of trying. Wright alternates vintage clips, vividly animated reenactments and talking head interviews. These interviews, with musicians who played with Sparks or were inspired by them, and (less relevant) with celebrity fans like Mike Myers and Patton Oswalt, were shot in stark black and white against a plain studio backdrop, and the way the Maels navigate this simple setup is telling. The duo can’t help but turn this conventional documentary setup into a playful deadpan: When Wright asks the Maels how many more albums we can expect from Sparks, on top of the 25 they’ve released to date, Russell estimates that due to “advances in medical technology” they have 200 or 300 more albums left in them.

The Sparks Brothers starts off with a promising and revelatory biography. The boys grew up in California in thrall to their father, whose pencil-thin mustache seems a precursor to Ron’s signature appendage. Dad guided the kids through the early years of rock ‘n’ roll and the golden age of Hollywood, both of which were profound influences. Sadly, their father died when the boys were young, but their mother took over pop instruction, going so far as to take the boys on a road trip to Las Vegas to see the Beatles (you can see the young Maels in one audience clip). It will surprise Sparks fans that these perennial misfits spent much of their youth playing sports; Russell Mael was, of all things, a star quarterback in high school.

The Sparks genius comes across in early clips; Wright uncovers the 1966 Maels demo “Computer Girl,” which imagined machinated women even though the brothers had never used the emerging technology. Yet for a band that was far from straightforward, The Sparks Brothers follows a too-straightforward narrative, moving chronologically through album after album, stopping along the way for testimonials from fans like Beck and Flea, as well as synth-pop musicians from New Order and Duran Duran who owed a clear debt to Sparks’ early synth-pop work with Giorgio Moroder.

This might not have been a problem if it didn’t continue for almost two and a half hours of “and then they did this.” The animated reenactments, some done with puppets and some with two-dimensional collage, helps to some extent, but Wright runs out of ways to bring this material to life. The nadir of storytelling efficiency comes in a sequence that conveys the Maels’ six-year dry spell from the late ‘80’s to the early ‘90s; echoing Sparks’ appearance on “American Bandstand” earlier in their career, Wright sees fit to include clips of Dick Clark’s New Year’s Eve bash – one for each year of this commercial wilderness. And while testimonials early on note Ron Mael’s multilayered lyrics in the band’s ‘70s peak, and the brothers’ constant reinvention in that era, the late-career lyrics get more repetitive, the inventiveness less endearing.

Die-hard fans who’ve stuck with Sparks through every incarnation and subsequent commercial failure will eat this all up, but less dedicated fans may find their interest waning after the ‘90s. Still, there was a potential story in that; near the end of the film Wright muses if Ron, the tall, Hitler-mustachioed older Mael, ever got jealous of all the women who paid more attention to the younger, more handsome Russell. Such rivalry would have been a more promising framework for a documentary. One thinks of the strange dynamic between cartoonist Robert Crumb and his brother Charles in Terry Zwigoff’s masterful 1994 documentary Crumb; in fact, one might start dreaming of the kind of movie Zwigoff might have got out of Sparks if he’d thought to follow them around in the early ‘90s, during their fallow period. That would have been an idiosyncratic narrative worthy of the band’s strange work. What we get with The Sparks Brothers is a hagiography, and even fans might agree that’s no way to craft a portrait of a band this strange.

Summary
Die-hard fans who’ve stuck with the Mael brothers through every incarnation and subsequent commercial failure will eat this all up, but less dedicated fans may find their interest waning.
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