I am a newcomer to the Sparks phenomenon. Perhaps that’s because I’m not as cool as Flea, Beck, Jason Schwartzman, Neil Gaiman, or Amy Sherman-Palladino, who are longtime followers…or perhaps I didn’t have someone like Edgar Wright to take me by the hand and induct me into their claque. But now that I’ve seen Wright’s new documentary The Sparks Brothers I’m a believer.

Russell and Ron Mael—yes, they’re actual siblings—have been making their own kind of music for almost fifty years. Iconoclasts through and through, they’ve changed their style of music multiple times, refusing to repeat themselves and willing to alienate some fans by adopting radical new ideas. Through it all, they have remained true to themselves, often using sly, satiric humor to deal with issues of commercialism and loyalty. (I get the idea that they’ve always been suspicious of widespread approval.) While cloaking themselves in a kind of mystique, Russell filled the nominal role of dishy lead singer while his deadpan brother Ron wrote the songs and played keyboards.

Edgar Wright charts their career from the beginning to the present day, using archival footage and testimonials from longtime fans and former bandmates to explore their esthetic principles… as well as their career ups and downs.

If you’ve never seen them perform you might be wondering what their music is like. That’s difficult to answer because their style has changed so many times…but it’s always lively and infused with humor. Their fondness for film, especially French New Wave cinema, made them ideally suited to the era of music videos. Plans for collaborations with various directors have fallen though, but now they’ve partnered with Leos Carax for the feature film Annette, which is due this summer. Now that I’ve sampled Sparks I can’t wait to see it.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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April 2024