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#HotDocs21 Review: The Sparks Brothers

May 5, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

The 2021 Hot Docs Festival is running virtually from April 29th to May 9th, all films are available to stream for audiences across Canada

British filmmaker Edgar Wright makes his documentary debut with The Sparks Brothers, an ode to the musical stylings of the band Sparks, which is described in the film’s official synopsis as “your favourite band’s favourite band.” In other words, you might not know much about Sparks before watching this exhaustive and incredibly entertaining documentary, but Wright ensures that you will know plenty about them by the end of it.

The band is fronted by the Mael brothers, charismatic lead singer Russell and more socially awkward keyboardist and songwriter Ron, who are front and centre in the film as well. The brothers were born in California and formed a rock band in the late 1960s, partially influenced by seeing the Beatles perform live. The film looks at the ups and downs of their career, which spans five decades and encompasses an impressive discography of 25 albums and hundreds of songs, with evolving musical styles. While they found success in England, the group struggled to make it big in America.

What they gained was a cult following of fans who loved their quirky yet sophisticated and sometimes poignant lyrics, as well as their cheeky antics. Wright, who is himself a fan, does an excellent job of taking us through the band’s entire history, through a mix of new interviews, old footage, and even bits of animation. The filmmaker also appears onscreen to talk about his love of Russell and Ron’s music, alongside a collection of other celebrity admirers, including the likes of Beck, Patton Oswalt, Jason Schwartzman, Mike Myers and “Weird Al” Yankovic, who was clearly influenced by them.

This is not only a comprehensive look at the music and history of Sparks, but also one of the finest music documentaries I have seen. Yes, the film clocks in at a whopping 140 minutes, but it’s maybe the fastest two hours and twenty minutes you will spend watching a documentary. Wright makes it fly by, keeping us engaged with a barrage of colourful performances from over the years. It’s beautifully crafted, too, with the interviews presented in black and white, which makes this archival footage pop even more.

We don’t leave the film feeling like we have only gotten a partial look at the band. It feels like a complete portrait, which is quite exhilarating. It’s a love letter from a fan, sure, but also a fabulous introduction for the less initiated. Even if you aren’t familiar with Sparks beforehand, you will be by the end of this glorious documentary, and will probably become a fan of them, too.

The Sparks Brothers is available to watch from April 29th until May 9th. Digital tickets and more information can be found right here.

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