Edgar Wright, the British director behind Shaun of the Dead and Baby Driver, is a big fan of Sparks, the enigmatic pop band known for hits such as This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us and When Do I Get To Sing ‘My Way’.
It’s clear that The Sparks Brothers, the documentary that premieres today at the Sundance Film Festival, is a passion project about a band, consisting of Ron and Russell Mael, that has produced over 25 studio albums in a 50-year period.
Having had the lightbulb moment while watching the band with The Lego Movie director Phil Lord at the El Rey in LA in 2017, Wright spent the next few years traveling the world with the band – to Japan, the UK and Mexico – and talking with fellow Sparks fans including Mike Myers, Beck, Neil Gaiman, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea and Washington Post journalist Dave Weigel as well as a plethora of people who have worked with the band over 50 years.
This isn’t, however, a tale of sex, drugs and rock n roll, it’s not a Behind The Music crash and burn story. It’s a story of perseverance and patience – a band that has had commercial success and flops but has always stayed true to themselves. They’re also a band that keeps pushing forward, from early success in the UK with the Kimono My House record through to radio success in LA, a proto-punk sound before pivoting to a Giorgio Moroder-produced synth sound and settling in to a certain level of success with 2002’s Lil’ Beethoven and a Franz Ferdinand-inspired renaissance with the FFS album in 2015.
The Sparks Brothers, produced by Wright’s Complete Fiction and Fyre Fraud producer MRC Non-Fiction, was shot before the Covid-19 pandemic (although there’s one shot of the band in masks towards the end), with Wright filming most of it before he started his psychological thriller Last Night In Soho.
Wright was slightly worried that the film, with its last live show filmed in November 2018, might have been slightly out of date thanks to a band that was always moving, but it turns out that’s not the case. “I did think when I was making the documentary, because they’re always moving forward, that by the time it comes out, it’s going to be out of date, because they’ll have done a new tour. But then, it turns out that the last Sparks gig in Mexico is the one that’s in the movie.”
Wright talks to Deadline about the “Herculean” effort of putting together his first documentary, which is an acquisition title at Sundance. Given the current boom in music documentaries – with films about the likes of The Velvet Underground and Billie Eilish scoring multi-million dollar deals with streamers – it won’t likely remain on the shelf for long.
DEADLINE: You first heard Sparks on [British music show] Top of the Pops in the late 1970s. What was your relationship with the band and their music in the last 40 years?
EDGAR WRIGHT: When I first saw them on Top of the Pops, I was five years old. My parents did have two chart compilations, from around 1979, 1980, which happened to have two Sparks songs on them, so I had, on vinyl, Beat the Clock, and When I’m With You. Then for the next ten years of buying album, it revolves around pocket money. So, for a long time, that’s all I had to go on. The thing is, in the pre-internet age, with music, you just had to gather whatever bread crumbs you could of information. My music knowledge relied solely on what was on the radio, what was on TV, and then, what records happened to be in my local record shop. Back in those days, you might find just one album, or no Sparks albums. The other thing that I used to rely on, and I didn’t even own it, was in my local library, they had the Guinness Book of Hit Singles, and so from that, I could see Sparks’ chart positions, but that, in itself, didn’t tell the whole story.
When I was a teenager, and I was getting more into some music, and actually buying the occasional album, or more often than not, copying from tapes, or other albums from the library. I was getting into David Bowie, and Queen, and Roxy Music, and T. Rex, and then I would become aware of other Sparks songs, and some of the earlier ones, from Kimono My House, but then, I was even more befuddled. I was like, this doesn’t sound like the same band. 15 years after seeing them on TV for the first time, they were on British TV a lot, because they had this song called When Do I Get to Sing My Way, and so, they did a lot of TV appearances, and they had this amazing video for that song, but again, it was in a different genre.
They were chameleons. Russell looks, somehow, younger, and more handsome than before, 15 years after the fact. It was kind of cool. They were a confounding proposition, and I think, in a way, the movie was an attempt for me to solve this riddle, but also, with each successive release, I was more confounded that Sparks were seeming to subvert the trajectory of every other band that’s lasted that long. It didn’t really seem possible, and a lot of other bands have been going for a long time, whether it’s The Who, or The Rolling Stones, as great as they are, at some point, they’re just kind of resting on their laurels. Sparks were always pushing forward with a new song, a new album, pushing the new music more than the old stuff, and I found that really inspiring.
When you become a fan of somebody that’s maybe, a bit more of a culty band, you become an evangelist for that band, and the way the documentary came about is that rather than waxing lyrical every dinner party about how much I love Sparks, at some point, I’m thinking, it might be easier to make a documentary.
DEADLINE: One of the challenges, I imagine, was balancing it so that it would appeal to Sparks fans and newcomers?
WRIGHT: I pitched it as a celebration for Sparks fans, and it’s an introduction to everybody else. In a way, I’m as excited, or maybe even more excited, about Sparks virgins watching the movie. Even the response that I’ve had so far from people who didn’t know them, is that they feel, in the best way possible, schooled by the documentary, it fills in a bunch of missing jigsaw pieces for people. Maybe, if you don’t know Sparks, you’ve definitely heard bands that are influenced by Sparks, and in watching the documentary, that becomes very clear. Some of those people just flat out say, on record, that they were really inspired by them. To me, was a missing chapter of musical history, and I felt that they were the best, and most influential band, to not have a music documentary about them.
DEADLINE: When did you start thinking about making the documentary and how long did it take you to make that a reality?
WRIGHT: I think the flash point all happened in the same night. I’d probably had the idea in my head, maybe out of frustration as being a fan. I’ve always been interested in documentary, but it wasn’t like I was actively looking to make a documentary. I’d just done Baby Driver, but I had thought aloud, why isn’t there a Sparks documentary? Maybe even that frustration of sometimes, showing people around my house YouTube clips of Sparks and starting to think, it’d be great if all of these were in one place, in high quality, but the night that it all really happened was at the 2017 Sparks gig in LA, at the El Rey supporting the Hippopotamus album.
I went to see them, with Phil Lord, the director, who’s also a Sparks fan, and we’d actually seen them once, before, together, as well, at The Wiltern, during the FFS tour. So, me and Phil are at this Hippopotamus gig, and I said to him that I think the only thing stopping this band from being as big as they should be is a documentary, because if you had an overview of the band, for people who find their discography daunting, and it would really go a long way to giving some context to them in a way that you could really, easily enjoy them, and Phil said, you should make that movie, and I said ‘ok’.
Then, after the gig, backstage, I said to Ron and Russell ‘Has anybody ever approached you about doing a documentary? Because I think I’d like to do a documentary about you’. Now, once I’d said it out loud, to them, now it’s a verbal contract. It’s a promise that I can’t renege on.
DEADLINE: What was their initial reaction? Were they into the idea?
WRIGHT: We talked it about the next day, and they said that over the years, people had approached them about doing documentaries, and they were either not completely convinced by the people approaching them, or they didn’t feel that the time was right, or whether they were even sure that they wanted to have a documentary. One of the things about Sparks is that they are quite enigmatic, and it was that challenge of, how do you tell the whole story, without ruining the question mark. Hopefully, I’ve found that balance where you can give the context, and tell the story, without ruining the enigma, but in a way, making this documentary, the more that I found out about them, the more I realized that it just wasn’t an act, and there was sort of a glorious realization that they, themselves, didn’t know where Ron and Russell ended, and Sparks started. I guess, when you start a band, you create a persona, and I think they had really become that persona, and then, what’s even more amazing, is that they were happy to let me shoot some every day stuff with them, that seems, on the surface, mundane, where they’re maybe not as flamboyant as Bowie, or Freddie Mercury.
To me, that makes the music even more impressive. It’s everything that they have in their head, it’s all funnelled into their music, and it’s almost like Albert Einstein not expending any of his creative energy on what he’s going to eat for lunch, or what he’s going to wear. I feel like Sparks has this laser focus on how to put everything into what they’re doing.
They always say never meet your heroes, but I was happy for that to not be the case. If anything, the more I know about them as people, the more impressed I am, and also, I always found it funny, as a fan, and this is beyond, even, the movie, they always seem to be Sparks the whole time. I’ve very rarely seen Ron and Russell separate from each other, and that’s also that weird thing. They’re not identical twins, but there’s definitely elements where there’s this, kind of, sympatico, where they usually coordinate what they’re wearing, colors wise. It’s like brothers at peace with each other, and also, complementing each other, in terms of their talents. I think one of the reasons that they’ve managed to work together, for decades, is that they understand that they can’t do what the other one can do, and that they are a symbiotic unit. Usually, in something like a band like Oasis, you’ve got two people who want to be lead singers, and that’s ultimately a struggle that can’t be solved.
DEADLINE: How did you find the process? How different did you find it to making something like Baby Driver?
WRIGHT: I guess it was a longer process in, obviously, with a feature film, you do everything pretty much in one shoot, and even if it’s a long shoot, you’re still doing it in a concentrated period of filming. But the nature of going around the world with them [takes time]. It wasn’t difficult to get people to talk about them. I didn’t have to twist anybody’s arm to be interviewed, but it was more of a Herculean feat of scheduling because I decided to film everybody in a studio.
There’s 80 interviewees, from all different walks of life, and lots of stars from all over the planet, but it makes it seem like they’re all in the same studio, at the same time, which is impressive, in its own right. I conducted all of the interviews, myself, which again, because this is my first documentary, I realized that that was, in itself, unusual. Producers, or researchers generally do some of the interviews, but I did all of them, but that was a great thing, because then it was a fun thing.
It’s a funny thing to be with New Order, Duran Duran or Todd Rundgren and talk about Sparks. Obviously, all of those people have their own story or legacy, but it’s like we’re just talking like Sparks fan boys, and they revert to the age they were, when they saw them on Top of the Pops for the first time.
DEADLINE: How did you find going through the archives. This is a band who have been going since the late 1960s. I notice that Katie Griffiths was your archive producer.
WRIGHT: There was tons of archive, lots of things to watch and to gather over a long period and even coming in late after we nearly finished the movie. We zeroed in on things that we wanted to use, and sometimes, it’s just a case of finding the masters. There’s tons of things on YouTube, and then you actually have to track down the masters. Katie Griffiths did an amazing job with her team, and then, beyond that, there was stuff that Ron and Russell had that had never been seen, like Russell’s student film, or just through putting the word out on social media.
For example, there’s a great bit in the documentary, where we had this footage of them at Fairfield Halls in 1975, a concert that was on TV, and there’s a ton of young, female stage invaders, who keep disrupting the performance. One of which is in the movie. She got in touch with us, when we put the word out, and she sent an email to the production team, and the email was basically her story, and this is now a woman in her late 50s, who remembers vividly the time that she jumped up on stage, and had to be pulled off Ron Mael. I read this email. It was beautifully written, and we said ‘We’ve got to interview that lady’.
I guess there was a point where there was nobody that I didn’t want to talk to about Sparks, because I wanted to show beyond the amazing A to Z of stars that are interviewed in the movie. It’s people they’ve worked with in all walks of life, and then people who are not anything to do with showbiz, who have been touched by the band.
Once that starts to come together, then you realize this is amazing. We’ve got this real Rashomon-like breakdown of this gig. Tony Visconti is mixing it. Nick Heyward from Haircut 100 is in the audience. The roadie who pulls the woman, Julia Marcus, off Ron Mael happens to be The Rolling Stones’ tour manager. He’s one of the biggest tour managers in the world, and roadieing on the Sparks’ tour was his first gig, and then, we have her talking about it. There was a bit that I didn’t put in the documentary that was funny. At the end of it, she said ‘I’m still on Team Ron, and actually, I’m single now. Ron, if you’re still interested, I am’. Then, Ron said, ‘Maybe I should put my phone number on the end of the credits’. I didn’t put that bit in the documentary, but that was very funny, to me.
DEADLINE: How do you fit the story of a band that has 25 studio albums into a two-hour documentary?
WRIGHT: It was the other way around; I knew that if I made a 100-minute documentary, it could be entertaining, but it would be a little less rich, and there’s parts of the story I wouldn’t be able to tell. There’s other music documentaries, and even ones that I really enjoy, where they maybe, skip over the flops. They just want to talk about the hits. I really loved, and I’m not saying anything negative about it, the Frank Marshall Bee Gees documentary. If I had one thing, I wanted to hear about the Sgt. Pepper’s film. Even if it’s only five minutes, just tell me that story. Maybe that will be on the DVD extras.
With Sparks, they had periods of success in different countries, at different times, but it’s not a golden period, as in it isn’t like The Beatles, where they’re a very young band, and suddenly, they hit, and now you’ve got eight years of total dominance, and then, they split up. The Sparks’ career graph is sudden peaks of commercial success, and then total indifference, and the band nearly splitting up, or albums that just don’t connect. But I knew in doing the interviews, and the archive, that the misses were as fascinating, if not more fascinating than the hits, and that was really important.
DEADLINE: Did you ever consider going full No Direction Home with a six-hour cut?
WRIGHT: Bob Dylan can get away with that. People have said, ‘It’s a very fast two hours’. I think it rips through. I thought about that, but I just thought even if I had a longer cut that was a Director’s Cut, I think this is the thing that’s going to be reviewed, and this is the thing that I want any person watching it for the first time to get the whole story, and that’s important. What’s unusual is that there’s not many documentaries about bands, where you go from the 1960s to 2020. The Beatles documentaries cover their eight years of work. Even some Stones documentaries that are really good stop in the mid ‘70s, where they feel like there’s nothing more to say. There’s a whole documentary about Exile on Main St., but it’s unusual, and I can’t actually think of another documentary where you follow the band, who never splits up, through five decades,
I think since 2002 with the Lil’ Beethoven album, Sparks have found this level of success, and acceptance, where they don’t have to bend to any commercial concerns. It’s just up to people to catch up with them. It feels a little bit like The Tortoise and The Hare. Do you know what I mean? It’s a thing where they eventually win the race, 50 years later.
DEADLINE: I noticed on your list of quarantine watches, you’d recently seen No Direction Home and Zappa. Are you a music doc guy in general?
WRIGHT: Do you remember the VH1 show Behind the Music? I used to enjoy watching the ones about the people I didn’t care for, more than the ones that I did. So, if there was something like a band that I didn’t particularly like, I actually, sort of, really enjoyed watching those ones. I like watching documentaries about all sorts of artists. It’s not like I don’t like Bob Dylan, but I’m not a Bob Dylan aficionado, and in fact, when I watched No Direction Home, it was actually the first time I had seen it. I had seen Dont Look Back, and I watched No Direction Home, because it was one of those things that even though I’d seen the other Martin Scorsese documentaries – I loved the George Harrison one, and I loved The Last Waltz – I’d never seen No Direction Home. Bob Dylan was a bit of a blind spot in my musical knowledge – maybe not now I’ve seen three documentaries about him – but now that I’ve watched the D.A. Pennebaker and two Martin Scorsese documentaries about him, I feel like I’m up to speed. I really love watching [documentaries] about bands that I like, and bands that I don’t care for.
DEADLINE: Back in 2003, you made a video for The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster’ Psychosis Safari, so you’re evidently a music guy.
WRIGHT: They’re great. I am very pleased with that video, actually. I made that video just before I made Shaun of the Dead. I was making a few more videos because I was really trying to get Shaun of the Dead to happen, and it was difficult for me to do a TV series because I felt I would just lose the momentum of making the film, but music videos are easier to do because they’re shorter and I could try out techniques that I was going to do in the movies.
DEADLINE: There’s a bit of a music docs boom right now. How hard was it to get this financed?
WRIGHT: I was lucky in that having a name director for a Sparks documentary is a good thing, just in attracting talking heads, and getting the finance. My pitch really was, they are sort of more deserving of the royal treatment in a music documentary than a lot of other bands. I wanted to make it feel as big as a Dylan documentary, or as a Beatles documentary. They deserve it. They’ve done the work. It’s now up to us to give them the kind of cinematic treatment they deserve. Luckily, I didn’t have to shop it around, because MRC, which financed Baby Driver, had just started a documentary arm. I mentioned it to Nira Park, my producer, and we went to them because we’d had a great experience working on Baby Driver, they were really keen to do it. That’s kind of, how it started. I first pitched it to them in the autumn of 2017, and then we started filming in the summer of 2018, the first thing I shot was a gig of theirs in Kentish Town. I basically had shot nearly all of the interviews before I started doing Last Night in Soho.
DEADLINE: Now, it’s launching at Sundance, how are you feeling about that?
WRIGHT: What’s amazing, in the movie, the B plot, essentially, is their thwarted cinematic ambitions, having had Jacques Tati wanted to make a film with them, and then, he fell ill and it didn’t happen. Then, in the ‘80s, they went for a long time, six years working on a movie musical with Tim Burton, which again, didn’t materialize. The ultimate irony, given all of that, is that in 2021, there’s two Sparks films, because there’s my documentary about them, and then they, as you probably know, they have written a movie musical, Annette, for Leos Carax, starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard.
I’m really happy for them, because they’re almost as big film geeks as they are music nerds. For them to have two very different movies that celebrate them is amazing.