If your typical conversation with a Sparks devotee is fannish evangelizing about why you must hear this album and that album is better than its non-existent reputation, it would follow that a Sparks superfan (hello) getting just ten minutes with his favorite working band turns that way. Which is to say I had the extreme fortune of speaking with Ron Mael, Russell Mael, and Edgar Wright about The Sparks Brothers, a new documentary as much tailored for acolytes who delight at seeing Christi Haydon as it is for the neophyte attracted by the director’s name, but I was happy to spend most of our time on minutiae.
The Film Stage: 10 or so minutes to speak with a director I greatly admire and literally my favorite working band—let’s make every second count.
Edgar Wright: Just talk to Sparks. This is why we’re all here!
I can’t imagine the experience Ron and Russell have watching this film, which—depending on your belief in the afterlife—is maybe the closest you can come to knowing what people will say about you after you die. What comments surprised or galvanized you the most? What’s stuck with me is Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos saying Ron lays bare his true self in his lyrics, showing his heart to the world—quite a strong statement to have made about you. Russell, various people comment how they had a crush on you.
Russell Mael: Speaking on behalf of Ron, or the comment made about Ron by Alex, I thought it was really a touching comment that he made. It’s one of my favorite lines in the movie, about ripping open his heart or however exactly he said it. It was really, really moving, I thought, and having those kinds of emotional touches throughout the film… I mean, Edgar did an amazing job of kind of situating all those comments in a way that has some natural flow to it.
Of all the things that were unexpected to us, as a kind of outcome of the documentary, was that kind of emotional side to it. In so many ways, comments like what Alex said. Even the comments that were throwaway ones, like by Jane Wiedlin—her talking about me but, in the end, talking about her fondness for Ron too. Those things were, however Edgar managed to bring them out of people, really touching along the way. Just an added element to the film that we weren’t expecting there to be.
Something I love in the movie is a recurrence of stories and experiences—they’re not exactly underlined, only a kind-of thesis that’s left to be interpreted. Among other things The Sparks Brothers is a brutally honest story of the choices an artistic career forces, especially one spanning decades. We hear from various collaborators who, frankly, had to be left behind, or people who moved on to do other things without them. What’s the process of finding and threading this—is it noticed when talking to people? Is it found in editing?
Wright: I think some of those things just naturally came up, because one of the things I find really heartwarming about it is: obviously there were different band members who had to be left behind for Sparks to survive, but there’s a remarkable lack of bitterness there. If, say, Ron and Russell had to let some members go and their career had tanked immediately, those people would be well within their rights to go, “Ha! See? I told you so! They failed without me.” But 47 years later, I know—because they say in the documentary—for Harley [Feinstein] and Earl Mankey from the first incarnation of Sparks, they’re as impressed as anybody else is about the career and hats-off to them.
I think that’s also something that naturally evolves in a career. There’s no malice intended in these things; sometimes it’s just the only way to survive. It’s the tough things you have to do to keep moving forward. I think that was something where it’s sort of… to not include those moments, you run risk of it becoming a hagiography, so it’s important to show those moments where tough decisions have to be made. Also, just for Ron and Russell’s parts, the biggest thing they’re fighting is commercial indifference, which is tough to get through. I’m inspired by the fact that they’re always so resilient and dedicated to what they’re doing; you kind of have to have blinkers on to everything else.
I think that’s the only way to survive, because as several people point out—maybe Flea says this in the documentary—that if you’re trying to create stuff for market forces, it’s ultimately going to be a loser. Even if you win it’s a loser, because you have a mass success that you’re not proud of, and it will still haunt you! [Laughs] The thing of doggedly sticking to artistic integrity through thick and very thing is such an inspiring model, and not everybody has the balls, to quote a Sparks song, to pull it off.
There’s the whole segment about the years before Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins, which is incredibly honest about how dispiriting those times could be. But it produced what is, I think, one of the greatest albums of my lifetime. Not to kiss your asses too much, but also to do that.
Ron Mael: But please do!
These narratives emerge without being “crafted” or manipulated. There’s a funny dissonance of Ron speaking a bit dismissively, maybe regretfully, of the Plagiarism album from 1997. But that album’s amazing version of “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” opens the movie. Part of me wondered if there was a bit of editorial imposition—actually this is great, actually this deserves time.
Wright: It also opens the soundtrack album, which I think is nice. The thing is—and Ron, I don’t want to speak for you—Plagiarism is one of the few times in your career where you’ve looked back and it’s the atypical Sparks album of looking back, whereas everything else is pushing forward. But that’s what I took.
Russell: Despite our feelings about the album, specifically “This Town,” the arrangement with Tony Visconti was something… we sat back, we said to him, “We’d like it to be this kind of smaller, string ensemble,” and he wrote those parts for it, the arrangement. It’s kind of astounding how each verse, the arrangement of instruments and orchestration, is so off-kilter in a really amazing way. Despite what we said, our feelings about an album looking back, someone like Tony Visconti rose to the occasion on that assignment and did something we think is really, really amazing. When it gets to the third or fourth cycle, his string parts are like… man, having to sing to those. Jesus.
Ron: It was less kind of a musical judgement.
Russell: Yeah, yeah.
Ron: More the idea of the direction. We had done the Gratuitous Sax album and we really kind of wanted to build on that, what we were doing at that time, and our manager thought, “Well, there’s so many new people coming in, maybe they need to be educated.” Not educated in a pedantic kind of way, but exposed to what we’ve done earlier in some kind of form; so he thought that was a good idea. And he was German, he was pretty strong, so we went along with it. I love the album… it’s just that I would’ve kind of preferred to move on from the Gratuitous Sax album in a kind of creative way, because we were on a roll at that time.
That little section about finding yourselves again got me to relisten to Balls, which was not something I’d spent too much time with, and I thought it was pretty great—just a perfect distillation of what pop music sounded like in 2000.
Russell: I’m chuffed. They’re going to reissue new packaging and mastering on four of the 2000s albums, and Balls is one, so I just was obligated to go and listen to it again because of the new mastering and everything. I actually have a newfound appreciation [Laughs] for that one, too. It’s one of those ones where certain ones just kind of got shoved to the side—you do them, and at the time you’re doing them you think it’s great, and until you kind of go inspect it again in the modern climate of things… I thought it was not so bad.
It’s funny that we’re talking about this film, which I loved, while this trio has a couple of major film projects coming up.
Wright: I’ve seen Annette and Ron and Russell have seen Last Night in Soho. Now we can do, separately, our Ebert & Siskel thumbs. For Annette: [Gives two thumbs up]
Russell: And for Last Night in Soho: [Gives two thumbs up]
Ron: [Shakes head] It’s like [Gives devil horns]
Russell: Yeah! Here. [Gives devil horns] More than two.
The Sparks Brothers opens in theaters on Friday, June 18.