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We Love This So Much: 'The Sparks Brothers' is a geeked-out antidote to music snobbery

Eric Webb
Austin 360

You can always tell why someone starts a sentence with "Have you ever heard of ...?"

When you run into one of those "actually" types at your local record store/watering hole/office/social media nightmare orchard, you just gotta move it along. A recommendation borne of one-upmanship is no recommendation at all, IMO. 

Edgar Wright's new rock doc, "The Sparks Brothers," is so fabulously the opposite of that, and it's in theaters now. Here's a band — cult favorite Sparks, aka brothers Russell and Ron Mael — that has endured quite improbably over the course of decades. Their first single came out two years before Cher divorced Sonny, and yet I don't think you'd call Sparks a household name.

(You could bet the farm that your household is cooler than mine and probably keep your cows when it's over, though.)

Brothers Russell and Ron Mael in director Edgar Wright’s film 'The Sparks Brothers.'

Sparks' endurance and relative anonymity, Wright's film argues, are as entwined as the Maels' shared DNA. When you stick to your artistic, if idiosyncratic, guns, you'll rarely be the flavor of the month, but you'll always be someone's taste, at least.

If you don't already know your Mael brothers from your Marx brothers — I didn't! — Wright has assembled an almost scholarly primer on their careers. We're talking boyhood to college, and then into a comprehensive analysis of every album in their 25-plus discography. "The Sparks Brothers" gives us production booth trivia for the music heads, cultural context for the pop history curious and grand, overarching storyline for the folks who just walked in because "In the Heights" was sold out at the theater. Even if you're a Sparks nut, you'll leave smarter.

The film points out that the band was bigger in Europe, specifically the U.K., than they ever were stateside. In fact, they actively pursued the perception of being a British act, and they broke out on "Top of the Pops." That's part of the best-kept-secret peg, and as a music discovery engine, I thought "The Sparks Brothers" roared. Check my Spotify history right after I left the showing if you don't believe me.

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Early hit "This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both of Us" (1974) frolics with the mannered country estate menace of its spiritual younger sibling, "Wuthering Heights" (not my fave Kate Bush track, but no one asked). Electronic pulse-jumpers like "The Number One Song In Heaven" (1979) and "When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'" (1994) scratch itches as diverse as Pet Shop Boys and Cut Copy.

And, of course, Sparks did most of it first.

This being a doc, there are heads, and they are talking. Wright's narrative deputies really run the gamut. There are the Folks Who Were in the Room, like Todd Rundgren, Giorgio Moroder and Jane Wiedlin, collaborators all; the pop descendants, like Björk, Jack Antonoff and "Weird Al" Yankovic; the celebrity fans, like Patton Oswalt and Mike Myers; a handful of everyday fans, the most charming authorities of all; and even Wright himself.

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Being a Wright flick — see "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" and "Hot Fuzz" — "The Sparks Brothers" zigs and zags with sharply edited wit and genuinely funny moments, many courtesy of the ever-eccentric Maels. You'll leave your seat with a crush on at least one septuagenarian.

The only faults I'd find are that the thing's long as hell (owing to the discography) and that, well, Wright upholds the mystery. The Maels' personal lives are shrouded in obscurity, and so they remain for the most part. I'm nosy, of course, and the music is more than enough to entertain. But it would have been nice to get even the briefest of personality sketches, so says this Pisces.

So, why does Wright want to tell the world about Sparks? Like all the best music recs, this one comes without even a speck of snobbery. It's genuine, head-over-heels, geeked-out generosity. I love this, "The Sparks Brothers" says, and I know you will, too.

About this story

We Love This So Much is Austin360 recurring series of pop culture recommendations.