“If you want to look at Ron and Russell, you have to look at them through one prism. And that prism is cinema,” says Franz Ferdinand frontman Alex Kapranos, one of the contributors to the new documentary, The Sparks Brothers.
Director Edgar Wright’s debut feature documentary captures the art-pop pioneers at an improbable late career high, as well as recounting the story of how they got there, asking why they aren’t as celebrated as they deserve to be, and finding out how they became your favorite band’s favorite band.
Their eclectic body of work spanning 25 albums and five decades is, among other things, inherently cinematic. The Maels, who began making music while studying film at UCLA under the influence of Ingmar Bergman and the Nouvelle Vague, create songs that present themselves as a three-minute elevator pitch for a romantic drama or a dark comedy. They often use such meta-narrative cinematic techniques such as whipping away the wizard’s curtain and breaking the fourth wall.
In the film’s production notes, Ron Mael compares their fractured sense of narrative to walking in halfway through a film and figuring out what’s going on (something he and Russell frequently did as children). They are also, literally, filmmakers, albeit perennially thwarted ones: projects with Jacques Tati and Tim Burton didn’t make it to screen (though Annette, a musical collaboration with Leos Carax, recently became available on Amazon Prime).
The Sparks Brothers documentary is as genre promiscuous as Sparks’ discography itself, using Wright’s trademark superfast edits and several styles of animation to push things along, as well as the more traditional use of archive clips and talking heads.
Wright personally conducted more than 12 hours of interviews with Ron and Russell over two years, as well as interviewing numerous Sparks admirers and collaborators such as Beck, Bjork, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mike Myers, and Giorgio Moroder.
There was also the challenge of finding archival footage, some of which had never been seen before. They began with more than 6,000 separate archival assets, which included hundreds of full performances, boxes of personal photos, contact sheets, and 345 songs.
To bridge sections, as well as illustrate anecdotes and add visual grace notes, Wright enlisted the help of animators Joseph Wallace and Greg McLeod.
“I always had the idea that because the brothers are so filmic, and interested in film, additional animation and visual non-sequiturs would be perfect,” says Wright. “I never directed a Sparks video, but I wanted to have imagery in it that would be worthy of one of their videos.”
Editor Paul Trewartha was tasked with shaping and condensing the material.
“We were working with countless formats, aspect ratios and frame rates that we were constantly interpreting as frame for frame in the project window to remove blending at every opportunity,” Trewartha tells Adobe. “My incredible assistant, Andy Laas, then reproduced this interpretation with the hi-res material after lock and completed the full conform in Premiere Pro, eye matching over 2,000 separate cuts of archive alone before feeding these mix downs out with associated XMLs to the grade. It was a lot of work but allowed us to troubleshoot in a controlled environment before feeding it out.”
Trewartha also animated billposters, flyers and album covers in After Effects and manipulated hundreds of contact sheets directly in Premiere Pro by importing the stills as high-res files and then cutting and repositioning to bring them to life. “I don’t know how we would have achieved the final aesthetic in any other way,” he says.
All of this also helps the film visually represent the eclecticism of Sparks’ career.
As producer George Hencken says, “The typical thing about Sparks is there’s nothing typical about them, and this film reflects that.”