Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with Edgar Wright, Ron Mael, and Russell Mael about cobbling The Sparks Brothers together, avoiding maudlin drivel, and replicating the band’s energetic humor.
Love makes you bubbly. Passion contained can only percolate for so long. Eventually, it must rupture forth, and those around you are made aware. You don’t want to be cool when it comes to your love. You want your friends, neighbors, and strangers to know about it. After a few days under its influence, you’re screaming from mountaintops, “Sparks is the god damn greatest band in human history!”
The pop-rock duo comprised of Ron Mael and Russell Mael infects a certain few in a certain way. Consuming Sparks is like catching a virus, and as you bump against others, you spread your glee, and it makes its way to the next person after that, and so on. The band is simultaneously prolific and overlooked, but its champions are nearly infinite, and more importantly, extremely loud.
Edgar Wright could not understand why there was not already a documentary devoted to their genius. After meeting Ron and Russell in 2015, the possibility of The Sparks Brothers simmered. Wright was in love, and even though Sparks is admired by many, and all the raddest musicians appreciate their wizardry, Wright wanted the rest of the world to be equally infatuated.
The Sparks Brothers is Edgar Wright’s blaring rallying cry. He was honored that the Maels took him in with their friendship, and even though folks say never to meet your heroes, Wright discovered a great generosity flowing from Ron and Russell. And the stories they gave Wright demanded a larger audience.
“Me talking to them on camera in the documentary is not dissimilar to the first coffee we had,” explains Wright. “Meeting Ron and Russell in person started my brain worrying about the idea that there should be a documentary. Their story needed to be captured on film.”
Unbeknownst to Wright, Ron and Russell had already been approached about possible documentaries. They always declined. The last thing they wanted was a dreary Best of Sparks recollection or a documentary operating as a preemptive headstone. But dismissing Wright was an impossible notion.
“We’re fans of Edgar’s films,” says Russell. “Any past hesitations of not doing it for reasons like, ‘is this the obituary for a band, and here’s your nice gold watch, and see you later,’ went away. Edgar stressed that the documentary would have a thesis. All the different eras along the way have led up to what Spark is now. Knowing all that, we just trusted Edgar to do what Edgar does best.”
What the Maels saw in Wright’s films was a kinship. They recognized a fellow weirdo, and weirdos look out for each other. The brothers didn’t even need to discuss the option. Their collaboration was undeniable.
“The one factor that determines how people get along best is a shared sense of humor,” says Ron. “Obviously, Russell and I have that through the music. Edgar has that same thing. It’s a secret club, people that have a certain sense of humor, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a romantic situation or a creative one.”
Avoiding the usual music doc drudgery was paramount for all parties. As Wright imagined it, the task became one of transferring, or better yet, transfusing Sparks sensibilities. The brothers spent decades doing the heavy lifting. All the director needed to do was wrap his film in theft, claiming their aesthetic for his narrative.
“When you know what Ron and Russell are capable of,” says Wright, “on stage and on record and in videos and on album covers, it’s just a gift. You’re now able to approach [the film] in such a way. I mean, in terms of all media, of using all the tools at your disposal in the same way that they would make an album.”
Wright splayed Sparks before him and took out his scissors. He’d snip from here and from there. Then, he glued the parts back together, and the resulting Frankenstein monster exposed the tissue that connected Sparks’ first era to its current iteration. The method is right there in the madness.
“There were things that were a jumping-off point,” continues Wright. “Aping some of the aesthetics of the album covers and the videos. All the interviews are done in the style of the Richard Avedon covers for Big Beat. I think I said to Ron and Russell early on, ‘Hey, we should do all of the interviews like that.’ They’re in black and white just like that very classic cover. It makes the archive stuff really pop.”
Layering Ron and Russell’s energy over his passion didn’t feel like a decision at all to Wright. The Sparks Brothers‘ purpose is to bullhorn their vibe and to catch the attention of those who have yet to fall under their spell. Once observed, the audience should go running to collect the albums and the videos they missed.
“Even little things like the animation is a bit of a no-brainer,” says Wright. “Because Ron and Russell have used animation in a great way in recent videos. In fact, the stuff with the stop motion puppet versions of Ron and Russell, they were done by Joseph Wallace, who just did a video for them in 2017 for ‘Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me).'”
Russell Mael was excited to see Wright interpret the Sparks style, but he still wasn’t sure what The Sparks Brothers would actually be about. He couldn’t quite see what an outside audience would latch onto with their story.
“We did not know what the thrust of the film would be,” says Russell. “What’s the angle of this documentary in comparison to other documentaries? Where’s the obvious thing of the huge dilemma? Where’s the huge problem with drugs and the overcoming of that and how it affects the music? No band members are hating each other.”
But creating a narrative really wasn’t Russell or Ron’s problem. There was freedom in shedding that pressure for Wright to ponder. And with their director, they need not fret.
“Once we saw the documentary,” continues Russell, “and started getting feedback, [the theme] was something that never even struck us. It’s that thing about the emotional side of the creative endeavor and holding out for your own creative values and your own integrity. That was something that was a real bonus for us, because we are so close to the situation, and we never thought of that being some kind of angle, but Edgar did.”
Wright always sensed that he and the brothers would get along, and he made the film to prove their kindred creative connection. Somewhere in Shaun of the Dead lurks Sparks. Their rhythms and their utterly earnest humor thump below every screenplay.
“I think what Ron and Russell have done in the band is not dissimilar to what I’ve done in my movies,” says Wright. “Their approach to the subject matter is totally sincere. That doesn’t stop us from playing with the form. That’s the thing that’s great about Sparks. Their approach to the songcraft and the emotion that’s in the songs is done with the utmost sincerity. But there’s a sort of remove there, where you can play around with the expectations and subvert the genre. And that’s what I’ve done in my comedy movies and stuff.”
There had to be plenty of self-deprecation tangled within that adoration. The Sparks Brothers couldn’t exist as a lavish lovefest. Jabs were required, as was mockery. The erection of pedestals only occurred so the Maels could be flung from them.
“I love Sparks, and I love music documentaries,” says Wright, “but it’s not going to stop me from making fun of them at the same time. I knew these guys would be game. You can tell that from the music videos and the TV appearances, and the album covers. They’re not a stuffy old band that doesn’t have a sense of humor about themselves.”
Ron Mael invited Wright to do his worst. He knew their collaboration would extend Sparks’ reach. Whatever fun or creative fulfillment occurred in making The Sparks Brothers didn’t compare to the actual selling of more records.
“In a very basic way,” says Ron, “maybe even a selfish way as well; it’s just a great thing that a lot of the people that have seen the documentary that haven’t previously known about Sparks will now get their first exposure to the band. Yes, it’s something that Sparks fans will go crazy for, but it’s at least equally inspiring to know that there are people that, for whatever reason, don’t know about the band, and this is how they’ll find out about what we’ve done. You can have an instant history of twenty-five albums and go get them online.”
The Sparks Brothers was fun for the Maels brothers, and it’s a cherished production for Edgar Wright, but the music remains the thing. The songs are the message. Like the music videos or the album covers, the documentary is another instrument to slap a potential listener across the face.
Hey, check this out. Sparks is wild. You’ll dig it and fall in love. Pass it along.
Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers opens in theaters on June 18th.