THE SPARKS BROTHERS (2021, doc)

June 17, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Over the past 5 decades, the number of bands that have broken up is, well, almost all of them. For two brothers to write songs and perform together over that span, and still be at it in their 70’s is remarkable. Sparks is made up of Ron Mael and younger brother Russell. They’ve published 25 albums with 300 songs, and performed thousands of concerts. Somehow they still like each other, respect each other, and work well together. As unusual as their music is and as strange as their stage show can be, it seems only fitting that their cinematic profile would be directed by Edgar Wright, who is best known for SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2002) and BABY DRIVER (2017). This is his first documentary.

Mr. Wright establishes the necessary unconventional start by having Sparks perform the opening credits. Not a song to open the film, but rather they actually perform the opening credits. We are then introduced to Ron and Russell, and we get some childhood family photos and an explanation about how their artist father taking them to the movies would later influence their work. And other than learning that Ron has a massive snow globe collection, that’s the end of the insight into their personal lives. Normally that would be a mistake, but there is nothing normal about Sparks.

Instead of personal profiles, director Wright opts for a chronological discography – a walk through the band’s timeline of recordings. Each step is punctuated with insight from fellow musicians or celebrities, and clips of the band performing their music from each era. The interviews are filmed in black & white so that the color of the stage performances really pop on screen. Some of those interviewed include producer Todd Rundgren, Jane Wiedlin (The Go-Go’s), Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Pamela Des Barres (a musician and, umm, certain other skills), and other musicians who played with Sparks over the years.

Often thought of as a novelty act, Sparks music and shows are filled with humor, but are not a joke. The two brothers have stayed committed to the music and the performances. To cover an extended gap in their career, director Wright utilizes 6 years of “Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve”, but more impactful is finding out that they worked on the music every day during those 6 years. The Mael brothers define persistence. The brothers’ desire to break into film music fizzled a couple of times due to Jacques Tati and Tim Burton, but they do appear in the 1977 thriller ROLLERCOASTER.

Songwriter Ron is the brother with the Hitler/Chaplin mustache, while singer Russell was the matinee idol in the early years. They are referred to as the “Best British group to come out of America”, and their musical influence can be traced to many more popular bands. A collaboration with Franz Ferdinand pushed their creativity, but it’s an outlandish 21 shows in a row, each featuring a different album performed live that may best define their love of music and performance (and stamina). So while Mr. Wright offers zip in regards to their personal lives, the abundance of live performance clips and the quite funny Sparks “Facts” over the closing credits make this a documentary worth watching (even with its 140 minute run time).

In theaters June 18, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


BABY DRIVER (2017)

June 29, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. If his movies are any indication, writer/director Edgar Wright would be fun to hang out with. He thrives on action and humor, and seems committed to making movies that are entertaining, rather than philosophical life statements. Many know his work from Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End), while others are fans of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. High concept, high energy and a creative use of music are identifiable traits within Mr. Wright’s films, all of which are crucial to the success of his latest.

Ansel Elgort (excellent in The Fault in Our Stars) stars as Baby, a freakishly talented getaway driver paying off a debt to a no-nonsense crime boss Doc played by Kevin Spacey. Baby has an unusual movie affliction – a childhood accident killed his parents and left him with tinnitus. He compensates for the constant ringing in his ear by listening to music through ear buds attached to one of his many iPods (depending on his mood). In fact, his insistence on finding just the right song for the moment adds a colorful element to each escape route.

The film opens with what may be its best car chase scene and the hyper-kinetic approach sets the stage for something a bit different than what we usually see. There are no car drops from airplanes or train-jumping (I’m looking at you Fast and Furious franchise). Instead these are old school chases in the mode of Bullitt, or more precisely, Walter Hill’s 1978 The Driver (Mr. Hill appears briefly here as a courtroom reporter). A heist-romance-chase film with a diverse and truly remarkable selection of songs, high energy, more than a few comedic moments (the Mike Myers mask sequence is brilliant) and a recurring Monsters, Inc quote requires a strong lead, and young Mr. Elgort aces the test. Baby is the DJ to his own life, and possesses a moral compass that others on his jobs can’t comprehend. It’s a heart of gold in a bad spot.

Spacey plays Doc with his chilling dead-eyed stare, and even has his own moment of action sporting an automatic weapon during a violent shootout. Spacey’s various crime teams (he varies the pairings) include psycho-lovebirds Buddy (Jon Hamm in his continuing effort to distance from Don Draper) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), Jon Bernthal, Flea, and an aptly named Bats (Jamie Foxx), who is not the clearest thinker of the bunch. Other supporting work comes courtesy of the rarely seen songwriter/actor Paul Williams, musician Sky Ferreira (as Baby’s beloved mother), young Brogan Hall as Doc’s talented nephew, and CJ Jones as Baby’s foster father. Mr. Jones is one of the few deaf movie actors and he adds much to Baby’s life outside of crime.

The crucial role of Baby’s love interest goes to the very talented and likable Lily James (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) as singing waitress Debora, who introduces him to Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y” song, while he plays “Debora” from T.Rex for her. She and Baby share the not overly ambitious life plan: “to head west in a car I can’t afford and a plan I don’t have”. They are good together and that helps make up for the always cringe-inducing red flag of “one last job” prior to the lovers running away together.

Buried in the Miscellaneous Crew is Choreographer Ryan Heffington, who deserves at least some of the credit for the most unique and creative aspect of the presentation. This appears to be a movie fit to the music, rather than music fit to the movie. There are some astounding sequences where the drum/bass beats are right on cue with the action – gunfire, driving, and character movements. “Harlem Shuffle” plays as Baby playfully dances past graffiti and sidewalk obstacles that perfectly match the beat and lyrics. We see what is likely the best ever movie use of “Bellbottoms”, and without question, the most creatively brilliant use of “Hocus Pocus” by Focus. At times exhilarating to the senses, the infusion of comedy shots and new love help offset the tension of crime jobs and the thrill of the chase.

watch the trailer:


THE WORLD’S END (2013)

September 7, 2013

worlds end Greetings again from the darkness. This is the third in the unofficial Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy, and my guess is if you know that, you have already seen this one. Director Edgar Wright has previously delivered is parody of Zombies (Shaun of the Dead), his parody of buddy-cop-action films (Hot Fuzz), and now takes on Sci-Fi in this latest … a worthy conclusion with the trademark quick cuts and rapid fire witty/silly dialogue.

I love the premise of this one. 5 buddies reluctantly reunite after 20 years to try and finish what they failed to in their youth: 12 pubs/12 pints … an epic pub crawl. It touches on the male transition to middle-age and also reinforces the old saying ‘you can’t go home again’. Simon Pegg (also co-writer with Wright) stars as Gary King, a recovering addict who is quite simply struggling with adulthood. His manic energy reunites the boys and carries the early movie. Nick Frost really shines here and takes on a different persona from the previous two movies.

worlds end2 As I have stated many times, comedies are the most difficult genre to review as everyone’s sense of humor varies. What I can report is that I laughed quite a bit at the dialogue, but didn’t have much love for the sci-fi portions, despite some similarities to Westworld and The Stepford Wives. Oh, and Rosamund Pike reminded me again why I am no fan of hers (yes, I realize I’m in the minority).

Hardcore Wright fans will enjoy the steady stream of regular faces, and yes, we do get the expected failed fence jump. This one won’t stick with me for long, but I appreciated the laughs.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the Simon Pegg – Nick Frost – Edgar Wright offbeat British parody films. It’s one of their best

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your comedy tastes lean toward the conventional … a territory Edgar Wright avoids at all costs

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n__1Y-N5tQk