“The best way to understand Sparks is through the lens of cinema,” Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand observes in the documentary The Sparks Brothers. For over half a century, Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks have made music in conversation with Hollywood movies. The orchestral arrangements on albums like Indiscreet and Lil Beethoven were inspired by film composers by Bernard Herrman, and songs like “The Director Never Yelled ‘Cut’” and “Academy Award Performance” draw on cinematic tropes to explore gender performance and troubled relationships.
Sparks love the movies, but the movies haven’t always loved them back. They’re best known in Hollywood for a pair of films that never got made. Director Jacques Tati died before the trio could collaborate on his screenplay Confusion, and their script for a musical adaptation of Mai the Psychic Girl went into turnaround when Tim Burton declined to direct the project. Most of the films they’ve worked on avoid their musical ambition or arch lyrical metacommentary, putting the music squarely in some of the sleazier, more bombastic parts of their sound. That could change with a pair of films released this summer: Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers, which serves as an introduction to the band for new audiences, and Annette, a musical feature written by Sparks and directed by the audacious French filmmaker Leos Carax. To understand why a Sparks musical opening the Cannes Film Festival is a big deal, though, you have to look at the projects bearing their imprimatur that have made it to the multiplex.
By the time Ron and Russell Mael returned to Los Angeles in 1978, they had released two albums stateside that didn’t reach a wide audience, critically or commercially; relocated to London; became TV stars of a sort with a notorious appearance on Top of the Pops; recorded a pair of instant-classic albums, Kimono My House and Propaganda; and found a new audience among glam-loving teenage girls. Their visionary pop found an unlikely fan in Jacques Tati, who wanted to make a film called Confusion that would star the Mael brothers and feature their music. Unfortunately, the film never got past the script stage due to Tati’s bankruptcy and failing health, and Russell would later describe not making Confusion as “the biggest disappointment of our career.”
They followed that disappointment with a cameo in the 1978 disaster movie Rollercoaster, in which the Big Beat-era Sparks lineup play before the grand opening of the Revolution rollercoaster at Magic Mountain park in Los Angeles. While KISS and the Bay City Rollers had turned down the role, there was some cautious optimism in the Sparks camp; in The Sparks Brothers, guitarist Sal Maida recalled hearing Ron mutter “could be great, could be great” when they arrived on set.
Their optimism was unfounded. Rollercoaster is an assembly-line disaster movie featuring a cast of old-school movie stars whose careers were on the wane in the late 1970s, a screenplay that only served to move its protagonists from point A to point B, and an opening scene that owes a great deal to the pre-credits sequence in Jaws. Sparks’ appearance gooses Rollercoaster’s lugubrious pacing with a shot of explosive rock and roll energy—literally, with the bomb that detonates onstage at a key moment in “Big Boy”. Their onstage antics, particularly Ron’s destruction of a piano bench, were representative of their live shows at the time, which was good news for their suburban fans who might not have otherwise seen them.
Rollercoaster’s poor quality was embarrassing enough, but it must have been especially painful in the wake of Confusion’s failure to launch. “Rollercoaster proves that you have to be continually careful of what you do,” Russell noted in the liner notes for the box set Profile. “You never know what’s going to last and what’s going to fall by the wayside, and man, does that last!”
The Mael brothers’ repatriation to Los Angeles opened up new opportunities in film. With the modest stateside success of their album Angst in My Pants, their songs started appearing on soundtracks to horror movies and pre-John Hughes teen comedies. In the early 1980s, New World Studios commissioned Sparks to write songs for the slapstick comedy Bad Manners. A handful of original Sparks songs appear on the soundtrack, performed by their backup band Gleaming Spires and session singer Laurie Bell as well as by Sparks themselves.
Bad Manners follows the misadventures of several tough kids at a Catholic orphanage. When Mouse (Michael Hentz), the youngest of the group, is adopted by a pair of status-obsessed yuppies, the rest of his friends band together for an unlikely jailbreak. The young cast and satirical Catholic iconography combined with the shabby production values, cringe-inducing character names, and scatological humor suggest Heaven Help Us as reimagined by Roger Corman.
That cheap sensibility extends to Sparks’ score. The canned drumbeats and tinny keyboards sound like they were programmed on a consumer-quality Casio keyboard, and Russell’s vocals could have been recorded in a phone booth. While Ron’s lyrics can be deeply witty or achingly poignant, the words to many of these songs just describe what’s happening on screen (as with the unfortunately titled “Motorcycle Midget”). A few moments of accidental melancholy break through the film’s tacky trappings; Gleaming Spires’ version of “It’s Kinda Like the Movies” gilds Mouse’s departure from the orphanage with an unearned sadness.
Over a decade elapsed between the release of Bad Manners and Sparks’ next big-screen appearance. In the early 1990s, the Mael brothers had busied themselves trying to make a film version of the manga Mai the Psychic Girl, but when Burton abandoned the picture to direct Ed Wood, the project went into turnaround. The brothers bounced back with the album Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins, which featured a guest vocal from madcap Hong Kong director Tsui Hark on the song “Tsui Hark”. The director would return the favor by hiring the band to score his English language debut, Knock Off.
In some ways, a buddy comedy/action movie from 1998 that stars Jean-Claude Van Damme and Rob Schneider shares some unfavorable common denominators with the less-than-prestigious projects that featured Sparks’ music. Yes, this is another broad, cheaply made feature with moments of boorish humor. (One scene, taken from the perspective of a miniskirt-clad lady detective, is worthy of Russ Meyer.) Flashes of Hark’s hallucinatory style shine through, as in an early scene shot through the eyes of a baby doll with an explosive device in its stomach, and the film is energetic and good natured enough for an afternoon broadcast on TNT. With its better-than-average pre-programmed beats and au courant orchestra stabs, the Maels’ synth-driven score underscores the louche atmosphere of the bootleg fashion industry in pre-Handover Hong Kong. Hark weaves their song “It’s a Knock-Off” throughout the film, and its witty, self-referential lyrics become funnier as the song is repeated.
By 2018, Sparks finally landed a film assignment that meshed with their sensibility when the Zellner Brothers tapped them to write a song for their western, Damsel. Though their sophisticated, urbane sound seemed at odds with country music, the Maels were game to try a new genre. “We asked if he’d ever yodeled before, and he said no,” David Zellner noted on Instagram. “He watched some yodeling vids on YouTube, and then 30 minutes later sent over a quick yodel demo that was solid gold.” Russell’s live performance of “Yodel for a Hanging” has a perfectly off-kilter sound that works well with the slightly absurdist tone of the film.
By the time Damsel was released, Sparks had started production on a career-spanning documentary directed by Edgar Wright. The seeds for The Sparks Brothers had been planted at a 2017 Los Angeles concert Wright had attended with Into the Spiderverse co-director Phil Lord. “I said to him that I think the only thing stopping this band from being as big as they should be is a documentary,” Wright told Deadline in January 2021, “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’.”
The film is a giddy romp through Sparks’ 50-year tenure as a band, drawing on stop-motion animation, stock film footage, celebrity interviews, and lengthy conversations with the Mael brothers themselves. Wright contextualizes the band’s constant innovation by establishing the musical trends they were predicting and how they incorporated those trends into their music, as in a sequence where they discuss working with Giorgio Moroder. His signature style is on display throughout the film, via rapid-fire editing and a string of visual puns after the opening credits. The film does flag a bit here and there, and at times the presence of non-musical talking head interview subjects seems like Wright is trying to sell you on the band based on their proximity to celebrity. (On the other hand, if you’ve ever wanted Neil Gaiman to mansplain a song called “T*ts”, well, this is the movie for you.) As a longtime fan of the band, I would have loved to hear more about how they actually write, in addition to the short scenes in their studio towards the end of the film.
With the Cannes premiere of Annette, the early-summer release of The Sparks Brothers made a prescient point of entry for film fans. In 2012, the Mael brothers made their first pilgrimage to the Cannes Film Festival, where they met acclaimed director Leos Carax. Holy Motors, which Carax was premiering at that year’s festival, featured a memorable scene cut to the song “How Are You Getting Home”. Sparks had completed demos of what was to be their next album, Annette, which they gave to Carax at the festival. “Lo and behold, he said he really liked the album and would like to consider it as his next project,” Sparks said in a statement to IndieWire. “We were happily surprised and elated at his reaction. As fans of Leos’ films, to now realize that he would be directing a film of ours was beyond our dreams.”
After decades of false starts and projects that didn’t reflect their best work, Annette opened the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. It’s easy to see why festival audiences had a divisive response to the film; the sung-through screenplay and irritatingly self-absorbed point-of-view character take some adjustment. At the same time, Annette is finally a movie worthy of Sparks’ sound and vision. Carax has a lush, maximalist visual style and a slightly coarse sense of humor that complements Sparks’ music, and he adeptly incorporates Sparks’ fondness for metacommentary in the film’s opening number, “So May We Start?”
The critical and commercial success of The Sparks Brothers and the early Oscar buzz on Annette have awakened a new cinematic interest in the Mael brothers’ music and the projects they worked on that never got made. In a press conference on closing night at Cannes, they announced that they were already working on a follow-up to Annette. Here’s hoping that Sparks’ cinematic career is as long as their musical career has been.