How Beck, Flea, and Patton Oswalt ended up in Edgar Wright's Sparks documentary
From the "Don't Stop Me Now" sequence in 2004's Shaun of the Dead to pretty much every second of 2017's Baby Driver, Edgar Wright has delighted in showcasing music in his movies. Now the director has turned rockumentarian with The Sparks Brothers. The movie, which premieres Jan. 30 at the Sundance Film Festival, details the career of siblings and Sparks members Ron and Russell Mael, who for almost half a century have delighted fans with their idiosyncratic and perpetually evolving pop music. Among that following is Wright, who personally interviewed the many collaborators and fans featured in the movie, the latter group a lengthy list of notables including Flea, Beck, Patton Oswalt, Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, and Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino.
"There were like 80 interviewees and I interviewed them all," says Wright, who also directed the upcoming psychological horror film Last Night in Soho. "The idea of sitting down talking to Sparks fans and Sparks themselves endlessly was just catnip to me. I was absolutely loving it. I think if we didn't have to finish the film, I'd still be doing it!"
Below, Wright and the Mael brothers talk more about the documentary and the duo's famous fans.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I have to say I loved the film. It made me feel bad I didn't know more about Sparks before.
RON MAEL: That's the right kind of bad feeling to have!
Edgar, what's your history with Sparks, and why did you decide to make the film?
EDGAR WRIGHT: For a long time in my life, as a music fan, Sparks were a riddle to me. I think making the documentary was an attempt to finally solve the riddle. I was first aware of Sparks when I was like 5 years old, watching them on Top of the Pops in the U.K. in their Giorgio Moroder period. I definitely have the visual of Ron and Russell on TV and how striking that was, which we cover a lot in the documentary. I feel a lot of people felt directly spoken to, or maybe unnerved by, the presence of Ron and Russell on TV sort of staring down the barrel and being more imposing than most acts on Top of the Pops. [Laughs] It was in stark contrast to Abba, for example. Abba were all smiles when they performed, whereas Ron Mael is staring down the camera at you! So I was completely beguiled by that. When I was a kid, I had "Beat the Clock" on a vinyl compilation that I seem to remember came as free with a pair of jeans.
As I became a teenager, getting into Bowie and Roxy Music and Queen, Sparks songs would keep cropping up. Usually it would be on a glam-rock compilation and I would hear something like "This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us," thinking, wow, is that the same Sparks who did "Beat the Clock"? That's weird. It's the same voice, but it's a completely different sound. And then, much later again, in the mid-'90s, Sparks were very much back in the zeitgeist with "When Do I Get to Sing My Way.'" By this point I was completely baffled, because this band kept coming back, and not getting noticeably any older, and in a different musical genre every time they appeared. And then really, since about 2002's Lil' Beethoven, every time Sparks brought out an album, they're consistently ambitious and challenging. The fact that Sparks always had a new album, had new material, were promoting the new material, was just extraordinary to me. I just felt, this is just amazing.
So it felt like it was easier to make this documentary than to bore my friends at dinner telling them that they should listen to more Sparks. I found when I spoke to people, if they didn't know Sparks and they'd say, "Where do you start?" I'd be explaining the history and the discography and eventually it was that thing where it would be better to make a documentary about it. I really wanted to make the case for Sparks being one of the greats, and I felt like an overview was needed. So this is it!
Ron and Russell, were you familiar with Edgar's films when he approached you?
RUSSELL MAEL: Oh yeah, and that made everything amazing right from the start. We'd always been hesitant about doing the documentary about the band because we feel that maybe our music sort of says it all. But when Edgar brought us the idea of doing this, we said yes in a minute. We were completely aware of all of his films. There was the thought too that the sensibility that we knew of Edgar through his work seemed to be in parallel with what Sparks' sensibility is musically. Our only hope was that we would get the Edgar stamp, if you know what I mean, because we wanted it to be Edgar's take on the band. We were were really happy that it turned out that way in the end.
As the documentary makes heartbreakingly clear, the pair of you have had disappointments with other film directors over the years. Was there some part of you that thought, "Ugh, here we go again, this is never going to happen"?
RON MAEL: I don't know. Maybe we're just so naïve about it. We knew this was going to happen once the idea was there and once Edgar said it was going to go ahead. Maybe we should have had more trepidation, but we didn't. Like you mentioned, there have been projects in the past — a Jacques Tati film that was going to happen and Tim Burton directing a Mai the Psychic Girl musical. Those were things that we went into knowing this was going to happen and then it just didn't. But for some reason, this time it was going to happen and it did.
Edgar, you interview an extraordinary array of Sparks fans. I'm guessing this is the only documentary premiering this year in which you'll see Flea and Dave Weigel. How did you know who was a Sparks fan? Or do they just all gather together at mad Sparks cult weekends?
WRIGHT: There are people who are noted Sparks fans, who have said so before, like Steve Jones or Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert from New Order. Dave Weigel had replied to something I'd said about Sparks. It was interesting, the people who came out of the woodwork. And then there are other people who you assume are a Sparks fan. I probably made that assumption with Beck or Patton Oswalt. I just approached them and went, "You like Sparks, right?" And they said, "I love Sparks!" It's almost like a Freemasons handshake, where you got an inkling about who might be a Sparks fan. It seemed obvious to talk to Ron and Russell and people that they'd worked with, but very quickly it became a chance to tell a bigger oral history where you're seeing who Ron and Russell are inspired by, the music they make, the people who are listening to that, and the music they make. So putting Sparks at the epicenter of all this amazing culture. And not just music. What's great about the talking heads is you've got people from the worlds of film and TV and comedy and literature and political journalism. It was interesting to me to show how many people out there are obsessed. Hopefully the documentary will create a lot more fervent fans.
RON MAEL: The one thing we learned through the process was that being the person actually speaking to every person being interviewed, that's almost a separate talent from just putting the whole thing together. Edgar was really able to make people feel at ease in ways that got information out of them that might not have been achieved by anyone else.
You're absolutely right. Interviewing people is an incredible talent that only the very brightest of people should even attempt. Anyway, moving on with my next question, this is a film which delights in showing the many triumphs of Sparks but doesn't stint in detailing the not-so-great times. What was it like watching this retelling of your lives?
RUSSELL MAEL: I think it was really good that Edgar chose to show the entire career and not try to shape it into something where everything's always been rosy, and here are the highlights, and shove to the side the other periods. Because the theme is perseverance. I think to show the perseverance you have to show the less up sides. It makes it more rounded as a movie and as a story, having the good and the bad in there. I think also what makes those ups and downs be more relevant is showing that what Sparks is doing now is maybe as strong as what we've done in some of those other really strong periods that people know about more. Hopefully you're left with, the band marches on!
Will we see a new Sparks album soon?
RUSSELL MAEL: We're always working. Maybe you can gather that from the documentary too. That's what we enjoy doing. The unfortunate thing with COVID is that Ron's been working separately form me, but it hasn't stopped the flow of things. We actually have some material. The next step is — vaccines permitting — we're going to start recording new stuff.
Do you know when the film will be released?
WRIGHT: Plans are still TBD, but obviously we're hoping that people will be able to see it later in the year. We're really pleased that it's at Sundance. I've never had a thing at Sundance. The only time I've ever been before was as a judge, so to have my first documentary be at the Sundance Film Festival was great. Hopefully everybody will be able to see it later in the year.
Has it whetted your appetite to make more documentaries?
WRIGHT: I have to wait another 50 years to do the second Sparks documentary.
RUSSELL MAEL: It's contractual.