Pop music brothers Ron and Russell Mael, who perform as Sparks, were ‘meta’ before it became a thing, and certainly before Mark Zuckerberg decided to call his company by that name.
They’re meta in the way some of their songs comment on songwriting itself (a bit like how Monty Python would sometimes stop in the middle of a comedy sketch to comment on the sketch). Edgar Wright, director of the Oscar-contending documentary The Sparks Brothers, cites one example from the brothers’ oeuvre.
“‘When I’m with You’ has a middle eight [section] where it says, ‘It’s the break in the song/Where I should say something special/But the pressure is on and I can’t make up nothing special,’” Wright notes. “That’s hilarious. That’s so Sparks. What a brilliant thing to put in a pop song.”
The brothers—Ron was born in 1945, Russell in 1948—have been charting their own enigmatic course through popular music since the 1960s. You could say they’ve done it their way—kind of like the sentiment expressed in the Paul Anka/Frank Sinatra song “My Way.” But with Sparks a song like that becomes, “When Do I Get To Sing ‘My Way,’” a tune with a melancholic yearning—not the anthem of a maverick or “winner” but the plaintive plea of someone hoping for their moment in the sun.
The film, from Focus Features, explores how the brothers, who were born in Los Angeles, broke through in the U.K. and have often been mistaken for British. Russell, on vocals, displayed the androgynous sex appeal of a Mick Jagger, without quite matching Jagger’s ego-driven demand for attention. If Russell was the cute one, Ron adopted the quirky stage persona of an outsider (perhaps an outsider to Earth) with slicked-back black hair and alternating mustache styles—either pencil thin or Chaplin-esque—that gave him the air of a silent movie star.
“Ron just sort of knew he couldn’t be like a rocker at the keyboards. It didn’t really feel ‘him’ to do the Jerry Lee Lewis or the Keith Emerson thing,” Wright observes. “So he took his cue from Buster Keaton instead… this sort of poker-faced deadpan look, looking at the camera, just upstaging everybody else by doing nothing.”
Wright, the director of scripted movies like Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Baby Driver, makes his documentary directorial debut with The Sparks Brothers. He got his first look and listen to Sparks as a kid growing up in Britain.
“I used to watch Top of the Pops every week, seeing Sparks doing some of the Giorgio Moroder-produced singles like ‘Beat the Clock’ and ‘No, 1 in Heaven,’” he recalls. “I remember being slightly unnerved by the fact that both Ron and Russell would just stare right down the camera at you, unsmiling, which was quite a strange thing back in those days, because most pop performers were all smiles. So, a big contrast to Abba.”
Wright says Sparks’ Top of the Pops performance of their song “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us,” has been voted the most memorable moment in the show’s long history. The song parodies male megalomania (“This town ain’t big enough for the both of us!/And it ain’t me who’s gonna leave!) and almost sounds like a send up of Indiana Jones, even though it came out years before those movies. One rhyme: “As 20 cannibals have hold of you/They need their protein just like you do.”
A propensity to inject comedic elements into their songs is part of what makes Sparks Sparks.
“Sometimes some people have a problem with humor in music. I think it’s because in music people want things to be sincere,” Wright observes. “Sometimes they [think] if there’s humor in the music, does that mean somehow, ‘Are Sparks making fun of me for liking this music? Is it insincere?’ I don’t think it is. I think everything’s done with passion. And whilst some things like that may have stopped them from being as big as Queen, on the flip side, we’re here talking about it! It makes them more memorable in the long run.”
Russell Mael insists there’s something lurking beneath the humor in Sparks’ songs.
“It has another side to it,” Russell assures Deadline, “this actually profound and deep and maybe even a darker side to things or a more resonant side that isn’t necessarily humorous. We kind of like to shift the tone of our songs to where something might have a humorous title like, ‘Angst in My Pants,’ but then when you actually listen to the lyrics maybe it’s a bit more profound.”
Across the decades, Sparks has recorded more than 20 albums, and the brothers wrote the music and script for the current Oscar-contending film Annette, a drama performed in song starring Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver. They may not be as well known as the Rolling Stones, U2, etc., but recording artists like Beck, Jack Antonoff, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and many others consider them hugely influential.
“To me, what’s really interesting is that other artists who’ve been going as long as Sparks, it seems to be a formality for them at a certain point,” Wright says. “I think Ron and Russell really love pop music, and love the idea, even into their 70s, of coming up with the perfect song. It seems like it’s just this never ending quest to write the perfect Sparks song. And, of course, along the way they’ve written hundreds of perfect Sparks songs.”
Wright cherishes many of those “perfect” tunes.
“When people say to me, ‘What’s your favorite Sparks song?’, it’s a difficult question because there’s so much. But if I had to pick one, if I had to save one in a fire, it would probably be ‘No. 1 in Heaven,’” he says. “The stroke of genius is it’s a song about a song. The song is about the number one song in Heaven when you die… It’s funny, but it’s, like, profound. And it’s beautiful. That’s what I love about it.”
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