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‘The Sparks Brothers’: All about the art-pop duo that’s enigmatic, influential and sort of famous

Director Edgar Wright’s documentary thoroughly recounts the siblings’ 50-year career with help from admiring musicians and famous fans.

Oddball Ron Mael (left) and his handsome brother Russell (pictured in 2020) look back on their five decades in music in “The Sparks Brothers.”
Focus Features

From the Byrds to Cheap Trick to Green Day to the Killers to My Chemical Romance, there’s a long tradition of American rock and pop bands that often sound quite British — and perhaps the most British-sounding American group of all is Sparks.

You know: Sparks! The enigmatic duo that was worshiped by fans in Germany, won over music aficionados in Great Britain, became a pretty big deal in Australia — and has become something of a cult legend in their homeland of America. They’ve been almost famous for a half-century now, ever since they burst on the scene in the mid-1960s with their dreamy, edgy, complex and grand art-pop sound and an arresting stage presence that included a teen idol-handsome lead singer with a beautiful voice, and a sideman/keyboardist who looked like he recently escaped from a place with padded walls and no sharp objects allowed.

Sparks is one of the most influential and beloved acts in modern music history, yet never achieved the success and fame many thought the band deserved. Director Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Baby Driver”), who is of course British, aims to rectify that with “The Sparks Brothers,” a sprawling and comprehensive and cheeky film that documents the rise and fall and rise again and fall again and the leveling out and all the other peaks and valleys the group has experienced over the last 50 years.

Sparks has had a number of band members through the years, but it’s essentially a duo consisting of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, who grew up in California and created a few waves with their unique sound in the late 1960s but didn’t really make a dent on the charts until they moved to Great Britain in the 1970s. Lead singer Russell looked like a glam star with his poofy hair and snazzy outfits, while Ron dressed like the dad in a 1950s sitcom and had slicked-back hair, a glassy-eyed look and an alarming, “toothbrush” style mustache reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin, or, unfortunately, Hitler. (A French TV station banned the group because of Ron’s mustache.) They were ... different. In a great way.

“The Sparks Brothers” features a treasure trove of concert footage and TV appearances, as well as tributes from musicians who were influenced by them, including Todd Rundgren, Beck, Flea and members of Duran Duran. We also hear from fans such as Patton Oswalt, Fred Armisen and Jason Schwartzman — and most interestingly, we catch up with the Mael brothers in present day. They’re in their 70s and they’re as charming and self-deprecating and lovely as they’ve always been, and they’re still making music. (As one observer notes, if they had been a huge success, they probably would have broken up 30 years ago and wouldn’t be talking to each other.) In fact, Sparks is on the verge of what could be its biggest mainstream achievement ever. Ron and Russell wrote the story, music and lyrics for the upcoming musical film “Annette,” which stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard and will be the opening-night feature at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

Looks like the boys are getting the encore they deserve.