My years of Sparks evangelizing found a strange wellspring in 2021. What began with Edgar Wright’s delightful, career-spanning The Sparks Brothers found its fulfillment in their Leos Carax musical Annette, about which little was known through years of anticipation until, suddenly, it was all most could talk about. A mere two weeks after its limited engagement does the film hit Amazon Prime, on the occasion of which I was fortunate to speak with Ron and Russell Mael for the second time this year—two times more than I would’ve dared dream.
This interview is an attempt to synthesize the essentials of a dizzyingly complex and ambitious project about which their contributions—paired with a voice so forceful as Carax—bear more questions and surprises the further they’re discussed.
The Film Stage: I’ve listened to “So May We Start” enough times that the rawness of Annette’s performance actually made me jump a bit—your voice cracks like a log being split in half. I’ve just never heard it that way. I’m curious about the decision to perform and capture something with such immediacy, and if—even as 50-year veterans—it’s at all daunting to put that out.
Russell Mael: Yeah. Leos really wanted—he prefers—having all the actors, including our small little bit at the beginning, being really natural in how the singing is from both a performance level and, also, kind of a technical level. He really didn’t want to make this sound like it was lip-synced, that it was being done to a pre-recorded vocal track. He really prefers all the rawness of it; it’s his approach that he really preferred. As a singer myself, I really prefer having overdubbing voices and rich reverbs and stylized reverbs and effects and everything. But for the movie this was really Leos’ decision—to have it be kind of the opposite of that, and to really have this raw kind of quality to it.
There’s such an extensive sound department here—so many people in mixing, re-recording, foley, etc. I love how your music and voices hover over, and this is a slight cliché, like a Greek chorus. (Or an opera, to mix metaphors.) I’d like to know how much of a role you had in sound-mixing or approval of the presence of music in the final film. Did you get into that technical, “producing” level?
Ron Mael: We did because, obviously as musicians, we’re lobbying for having the music being as powerful as possible. Leos—and it’s understandable—is kind of favoring… I mean, obviously the power of the music is important to him as well, but he is more concerned about the intelligibility of what the actors are saying. So there were discussions about all of that. I think the one compromise that we kind of came up with was that, on the record, maybe the mixes are more in keeping with how we prefer that they sounded, but we completely understand his intentions in the mixing of the film.
It’s not as if there’s just a vocal and then some little humming in the background—the music is still very powerful. It’s just that we kind of, as musicians, we’re kind of pushing for that to be the essence of what the film is. There was, you know, some tension in that, but it was never, like, to fisticuffs or anything. Because we completely understand his intent in that: it really is important that you hear what the actors are saying. As well as the musical context.
A fight between the two of you and Leos Carax would be quite the sight.
Ron: Oh, he would take me out. Despite smoking every fifteen minutes, he would take me out in one blow.
There was a photo of you all at the Cannes press call, with Ron wearing this pristine suit and tie next to Carax in his shambolic assembly. These are literally the only two ways I care to dress.
Ron: Oh, that’s cool. I really admire him. I mean, aside just from being a great film director, he’s not putting it on. He is genuine, just as far as his attitude—the way he appears. Just to have that kind of attitude: “I’m not going to wear a fucking bowtie!” I really have great admiration for that attitude, as long as it goes hand-in-hand with being a great film director as well. I have to resort to cheap gimmicks like wearing tuxedos, but—fortunately for him—he doesn’t have to do that.
Well, when you’re a French director.
Ron: Exactly! Exactly.
The Ape of God is incredible; I loved it so, so much. In the end credits Adam Driver thanks Bill Burr and Chris Rock, who I assume gave advice—but I have to wonder if, for you and Carax, there were any inspirations from Neil Hamburger or Andrew Dice Clay circa The Day the Laughter Died. When Henry gets onstage he even does the Neil Hamburger growl.
So were either influences? Or am I just seeing that where it doesn’t exist?
Ron: Well, he never really mentioned it. He had mentioned people like—even though it’s not usually quite in that style—Andy Kaufman and those sorts of comedians. But neither of those two really came up. But I think, stylistically, that was the area that he was definitely going for. I think Leos’ biggest contribution, as far as the writing, were the two monologues: in our original version most of the things are pretty much the way they are in the final film, but he kind of expanded the monologues and made the character of Henry more complex, I think, within those monologues.
I love Annette’s blending of career-long interests between yourselves and Carax. I was rewatching parts of it this week while newly smitten with your song “Lawnmower,” which I love because it starts off super goofy before revealing itself as yet another Sparks song about being so obsessed with something that it ruins your life.
The confluence got me wondering how much that is or is not a kind of thematic thread in your work. I was thinking how that dovetailed with Henry in Annette—but also Edgar Wright’s movie, how you’re shown to have this unbelievable persistence against big odds and… does this make sense?
Russell: Regarding a song like “Lawnmower,” it’s even more about finding situations or themes that might be clichéd kind of themes but finding new ways of treating them. In this case it’s a relationship again, but finding a new way to frame it that’s not hackneyed. So the guy having to decide on his affections between his lawnmower and his girlfriend was just another little way to have a relationship song, but in a way that probably hasn’t been done before. Ron comes up with those little vignettes or stories like that, where it’s kind of a love song but taking a detour, in a certain way, from traditional songs.
We still think that there’s still ways to do pop music where you can have lyrics—the music doesn’t have to be wallpaper, something that’s in the background. It can be something that you actually have to listen to and pay attention to and that lyrics are important. A lot of pop music, it seems like lyrics don’t really matter; it honestly doesn’t matter what people are saying in songs because it’s not that interesting, anyway. The less you absorb what’s being said, probably the better, but we kind of take pride in the lyrics being… just more interesting. Forcing people to have to pay attention to them. I don’t know how that gets back to Annette, but yeah.
Ron: Maybe there’s a film idea for “Lawnmower,” somehow.
Russell: That’s our next musical.
Ron: One man’s passion for yard-trimming.
You’re both longtime cinephiles. You even introduced many to Tsui Hark. Have you tracked the response to Annette, and—if so—how does that response feel different to what greets your music? Is there a notable difference in those conversations?
Russell: In a way, we’ve followed some of the reviews and all. It’s polarizing. Really extreme—like, sometimes, Sparks’ music is seen. It really is divisive in a certain way, but people are really passionate about it, too. Passionate in both extremes. It seems like nothing is new, now, with the reaction to Annette, but we think of that in a really positive way. The worst thing is for everybody to be, “Oh… it’s a… really pleasant movie you guys have done…” The positive reactions have been so, so strong to the movie that we… the majority of people understand the movie in the way that we understand the movie, and the ones that don’t, there’s not going to be any way to convince anybody differently about what the film is.
We think it’s a modern musical and something that has intentions of being something special and unique and really bold and singular and not having many comparisons of where it kind of fits in in movies or musicals. Most people have gotten that, and the ones that don’t… we can’t change people’s minds. We think, maybe, people’s expectations of what movies are supposed to be… well, it is a demanding movie. A lot of times, we think people are lazy if they don’t understand everything, or the first half-hour they don’t know where the film is headed—well, it’s intentionally that way. Yeah, you might not understand. Stick with it for the next hour-and-a-half and you’ll see where it’s headed. But we’re really proud of it and proud so many people have responded so favorably. We’re in the right area.
I’d just tell people “watch it until you love it.”
Russell: Yeah! That’s the thing. Perceptions have changed, too, about Sparks’ music over time. As a result of Edgar Wright’s documentary, people are going, “Well, no, of course their music’s always been brilliant.” For the people that are not yet embracing Annette, that’ll be the next thing we’ll be hearing a year from now: “Of course it’s always been a masterpiece in our minds.”
You’ve hinted at work on another film project.
I don’t know if you’re allowed to say anything. But I figured I’d try.
Russell: We’re still not allowed to say anything about it. But, no, we’re really excited to be doing a new project, because we loved the whole process of Annette and the result of Annette so much that we wanted to strike while the iron’s hot and be able to do another project—so we’re working on it now. And without getting into specifics about what the story is or anything, we’re really excited to be pursuing this area. We’re more than halfway through a new Sparks album, too, so we sort of have both things going on parallel courses now. It’s fun to be doing both things at once, but yeah: there will be both a new Sparks album and, a little bit later, another movie musical.
Ron: I think it really helps working in those two areas. It doesn’t diffuse your kind of intentions; you kind of come back to working on three- or four-minute songs with a stronger passion once you’ve been working in a longer sort of way, too. They both kind of feed off each other, as far as just being able to work in two different ways at the same time.
Annette is now in theaters and on Amazon Prime. Listen to the soundtrack below.