Sparks on the Screen
Newsweek|July 02 - 09, 2021
After decades of trying, the musical duo of Ron and Russell Mael are releasing two movies, a band documentary and an original musical
DAVID CHIU

OVER A CAREER THAT HAS LASTED MORE than 50 years, Sparks, the Los Angeles-based art-rock/pop outfit of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, have released 25 studio albums, scoring occasional chart success in various parts of the world and influencing countless other musical acts. Their idiosyncratic yet ruthlessly catchy music has encompassed various genres, among them glam rock, power pop, synthpop, techno and classical, with quirky and ironic lyrics, Russell’s vocals and Ron’s keyboards the only constants. On stage, they’ve cultivated two of the weirdest and most distinct personas in rock.

One thing they’ve aimed for that has eluded them till now: bringing their vision to the silver screen. The brothers had started out as film fans who studied cinema as students at UCLA during the late 1960s but their subsequent collaborations with directors Jacques Tati and Tim Burton never bore fruit (Sparks’ only notable film credit was a cameo appearance in the 1977 disaster movie Rollercoaster). Russell recalls working with Tati over a period of several months in the 1970s. “At the time we were incredibly excited,” he tells Newsweek. “Now looking back, it would have been even more of an amazing thing because Tati’s legacy is so amazing. But c’est la vie.”

This summer, Sparks have two movies out. The first is The Sparks Brothers, a documentary that opened in theaters on June 18 directed by British filmmaker and Sparks fan Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Baby Driver). The second is Annette, a musical drama by the Maels directed by French filmmaker Leos Carax. “It’s surreal and unbelievable, and also just the fact that Annette is opening up the Cannes Film Festival [on July 6],” Ron says. “We’re such film geeks that to have in any small way our name connected with Cannes is kind of ridiculous.”

Sparks are neither a mainstream band nor a cult act: they never had a gold or platinum album in their native U.S., but have had hits in Europe. To their very loyal fans, they are the greatest band that most people have only vaguely heard of. As addressed in the film, the dichotomy of the career of Sparks is that they have been acclaimed and productive for so many years and yet remain under the radar as far as wider recognition and greater commercial success go.

“The thing that’s a mystery to us,” Ron says, “is why we’ve had some commercial success, which usually was only in one country and not others. Record company people never seemed to really have a handle on it. But the one thing we do know is that if we were to put ourselves in the position of analyzing how to go about getting that more universal commercial appeal, it wouldn’t work for us either.”

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