Fanumentaries are on the rise. These docs are generally lo-fi crowd-funded affairs that let fans share their passions with the world. The danger with these kind of fan-service documentaries, however, is that they generally assume that everyone cares about the subject as much as the filmmaker does. This challenge is not impossible to overcome: sometimes the best docs have a relatively simple premise and engage audiences creatively. On the other hand, it’s also a fact that, even in the best of hands, novel subjects don’t inherently make a great film.
The latter is sort of the case with The Sparks Brothers. The doc puts fan-service on an epic scale as it recounts the varied career of the American band Sparks, founded by brothers Ron Mael and Russell Mael as Halfnelson in 1967. With several decades in the music biz and 25 albums to their name, Sparks’ legacy is strange. In Wright’s view, it’s also significant. Admittedly, I’d never heard of the band until The Sparks Brothers was announced for Sundance earlier this year. While watching the film, not a single song was familiar to me and I had no interest in further exploring Sparks’ discography once the doc was finally over. One doesn’t usually need to be a big fan of a subject to enjoy his or her story, but The Sparks Brothers might appeal to a very niche demographic. Those who love Sparks, however, will totally love this movie.
That’s the conundrum of Wright’s film: the passion and enthusiasm is evident across the board. Unfortunately, said appreciation doesn’t translate from the filmmaker and subjects to the viewer. The Sparks Brothers seems like it was an absolute riot to make, but it’s a slog to watch. Ironically, the only Sparks’ lyric this reviewer can recall is “I wish you were fun.”
The sprawling film is Wright’s first feature doc after a noteworthy career directing fun and zany comedies like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Baby Driver, to name a few. Wright’s films often receive as much praise for their soundtracks as they do for their high energy and big laughs. The Sparks Brothers seems like the perfect material for him and, to an extent, it is. This doc is a music geek’s buffet of nostalgia and appreciation. Wright charts the history of Sparks and captures the Maels’ humorous and idiosyncratic style. Their lyrics are goofy, like Monty Python meets “Weird” Al Yankovic, and their shtick is eccentric. Ron Mael sported a Hitler moustache in the band’s early days, as one example of Sparks’ irreverent humour.
The Maels’ are goofy together and make their interviews something of an Abbott and Costello routine. A constant smirk graces both their faces and one can sense Wright sporting one as well. The director and subjects energetically nerd out about Sparks’ long and wide-ranging discography. The Sparks Brothers is the kind of expansive work that only a true fan well versed in the subjects’ careers and arcana could deliver. However, Wright’s palpable gusto for Sparks is the film’s failing. He loves the band so much that he tries to cover far too much. At nearly two-and-a-half hours of self-congratulation and irritating music, one needs to be a dedicated fan.
To Wright’s credit, he cut the film from a four-and-a-half hour version, but it’s still too much. The Sparks Brothers doesn’t really need to unpack every single record the Maels produced. The film becomes repetitive, and the conversations with fellow Sparks devotees cheapen the commentary when virtually every record is heralded a masterpiece, every concert dubbed a landmark event, and every single deemed a revolutionary success. The film does convey Sparks’ magic for reinvention as Wright shows how they changed gears more frequently than Madonna did. Changing sounds from one album to the next, the doc hints at the band’s struggle to break through as a true commercial success despite their obvious artistic influence.
Wright amasses an admirable collection of talking heads as well and proves that there is no shortage of adulation for Sparks among the music scene. However, in corralling so many people to gab about Sparks, the doc simply weighs itself down with repetition and fan service. Actors like Mike Myers, Patton Oswalt, and Jason Schwartzman add some star power for cinephiles, but Wright could just as easily have had these conversations over beers at the pub. That’s also the shaggy dog charm of The Sparks Brothers. Wright might not be out to convince the world that Sparks is the greatest band in the history of American music. Instead, he reminds hardcore fans that the band is worth celebrating—both for its creativity and for its ability to stay true to itself after 50 years on the scene. One doesn’t need to be a fan of Sparks to admire the latter.
The Sparks Brothers is now available in digital release.