Sparks Will Be Your Best, Weirdest Musical Discovery of 2021

These outsider pop masters wrote the new musical 'Annette' and are the subject of an Edgar Wright documentary. Now is your chance to become a fan.
JT
Chicago, US
August 19, 2021, 12:00pm
Ron and Russell Mael of the band Sparks in the film 'Annette'
Sparks in 'Anette' 

Sparks have been a band for 50 years, but in 2021 it finally feels like the art-pop duo composed of brothers Russell Mael, the lead singer, and Ron Mael, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, are having their deserved moment in the spotlight. Over 24 studio albums, which all range from solid to transcendent, they’ve built a reputation as outsider pop masters who’ve consistently jumped between genres, moods, and artistic experiments without losing any of their whimsical charm. They’ve been called “Your Favorite Band’s Favorite Band” for a reason, and even Jack Antonoff, the in-demand producer for Taylor Swift, Lorde, and Lana Del Rey, goes so far to say that, “All pop music is rearranged Sparks.” Despite this, they’re hardly household names—but two films out this year might change that. 

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First, there was this summer’s documentary The Sparks Brothers, a loving career retrospective directed by Edgar Wright. Now, comes Annette, a Leos Carax-directed musical the brothers penned. Together, the films show that the Los Angeles act is more than just a beloved, long-running cult band that’s been making ahead-of-the-curve music for a half-century. In fact, they are still creating weird, vital songs today. 

The Mael brothers have been making music since 1966 as California teenagers making weirdo surf-inspired pop. But Sparks didn’t truly begin until 1972 when they released pristine and catchy rock in their Todd Rundgren-produced debut LP. Even if you can’t name a song, Sparks’ vast catalog is worth a deep dive thanks to the way the Mael brothers have gleefully toyed with genres from rock, new wave, glam rock, psychedelia, disco, synth-pop, techno, opera, chamber pop, and more. While they’ve constantly changed their sound and anticipated trends in pop music—listen to the first three Sparks records and try to say with a straight face that Queen wasn’t ripping them off, or that 80s synth rock didn’t crib from their 1979 LP No. 1 in Heaven—they’ve demonstrated a singular creative vision and an all-encompassing sense of humor with each release. For instance, “Girl From Germany,” off their second album 1973’s A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing, is biting social commentary about a Jewish man bringing his German girlfriend to meet his parents: Russell sarcastically sings, “Oh, no! Bring her home and the folks look ill / My word, they can't forget that war, what a war!” Even their album titles have fun, like 1982’s Angst in My Pants and 1993’s Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins

The Sparks Brothers, available to rent on your favorite digital platform, is the perfect introduction to the band, both when it comes to wrapping your mind around their enigmatic backstory and understanding why they’re so appealing and secretly influential. As a director, Wright has always playfully broadcast his deep love of music. Take inventive films like Baby Driver and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, with their clever writing, rhythmic cuts, and scenes that are edited to the beat of the soundtrack. This documentary is no exception: There’s all the above, plus visual gags, the Maels’ hilarious and delightful riffing in onscreen interviews, and a cast of effusive talking heads that includes Björk, Beck, Flea, Thurston Moore, and Todd Rundgren. Watching, it’s hard not to be evangelized. 

This is the rare music documentary that focuses as much on the latter half of its subject’s catalog as it does its first. Too often, films about artists gloss over the mid-and-late career LPs, focusing only on the breakthrough hits and the peaks of success. But The Sparks Brothers gives equal credence to their best-selling 1974 album Kimono My House and recent LPs like 2002’s Lil’ Beethoven and 2015’s FFS, a collaboration with Franz Ferdinand.

In an interview with Vulture, Russell Mael said the film’s reverence for their newer material proves that they’re “still doing work that’s challenging, not resting on the laurels of becoming a nostalgia act.” Accordingly, the documentary challenges cultural expectations of success: Just because Sparks never had their full-on mainstream breakthrough, they’re triumphant in having an undeniably distinct body of work. They’ve endured because of their idiosyncratic artistry as well as their relentless work ethic. 

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If you’re new to Sparks, Annette, the new musical they wrote and soundtracked that’s hitting Prime Video on Friday, is worth a watch, but it shouldn’t be your first exposure to the band. It’s not that the songs in Annette aren’t immediate and excellent; it’s that the film, which was directed by French auteur Leos Carax (Holy Motors), is so uncompromising in its beguiling vision that watching it can be a whiplash-inducing experience, even for diehard fans. 

Starring Adam Driver as comedian Henry McHenry and Marion Cotillard as the opera singer Ann Desfranoux, the film follows their whirlwind and turbulent romance and marriage. Neither actor is a trained singer, but both competently sing most of their parts, and the film is structured like an opera, both in the musical arrangements and the disorienting flow of the plot. 

This is a movie that’s better experienced than summarized—for one thing, Ann and Henry’s daughter is a wooden marionette puppet for most of its runtime, a decision that is not explicitly explained. But Annette deftly tackles subjects as knotty as toxic masculinity, the downsides of fame, infatuation, jealousy, and exploitation in the entertainment industry. You likely will have not seen anything quite like it.  

Compared to the band’s previous catalog, the film’s music takes yet another artistic leap—this time, to more ethereal and opera-inspired territory. Sure, there’s the power-pop meta-rock opener “So May We Start,” which, with its jaunty piano and intricate, theatrical harmonies feels like vintage Sparks. But the true highlights come from the atmospheric strings and arias, which sound hair-raising and tragic, marking another high point in their already theatrical oeuvre. As you may have heard from your Twitter feed about the film, there’s even a musical number where Henry is performing oral sex on Ann, proof that even in their 50th year as a band Sparks’ isn’t afraid to shock. 

These two films couldn’t be more different, but they encapsulate the vast and symbiotic genius of the Mael brothers, whose career has endured for their wit, adventurousness, and ability to take huge risks. Just as Carax’s eccentricity fits perfectly with the band’s own musical and visual weirdness, Sparks’ humor is also exceptionally matched in Wright’s enthusiastically clever directorial style. In an interview with Variety, Wright explained how much fun it was to finally dive into their music. “I get asked a lot, ‘What Sparks album should I start with?’” he said. “And the truth is that there’s no one album that defines the whole story. So that’s a testament to Ron and Russell—it isn’t like you can get the entire measure of Sparks from just one album.” There’s no perfect guide to Sparks, but for a band whose entire career is several dozen artistic left turns, you can’t go wrong.