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Sparks of inspiration: Edgar Wright discusses 'The Sparks Brothers' and the role of music in his films

June 17, 2021
11 min read time

California brothers Ron and Russell Mael have been making music together as the band SPARKS for more than 50 years. Their idiosyncratic approach to songwriting and performance has left its mark in various musical genres, including glam rock and synth pop, and they’ve inspired numerous artists, from Morrissey to Beck. And yet if you live stateside, there’s a good chance you've never heard of them. Writer-director Edgar Wright aims to change that with his first documentary feature, The Sparks Brothers. The film comprises archival and live footage and interviews with the brothers and many prominent fans: the aforementioned Beck, 'Weird Al' Yankovic, Flea, Jason Schwartzman, Mike Myers, and members of DURAN DURAN, to name a few. The film not only educates the viewer on all things SPARKS, but is a joyful celebration of their music and dauntless individuality.

After the massive success of his 2017 action film Baby Driver, Wright is one of the few writer-directors working with the major studios today that can pretty much do whatever he wants; and it should come as no surprise that the English filmmaker has a passion for music, which has always featured prominently in his films. His next narrative feature is the upcoming Last Night in Soho (scheduled for release this fall), making The Sparks Brothers a nonfiction interlude. But what were the origins of The Sparks Brothers and was it designed to be Wright’s follow-up to Baby Driver? 

"This has been in the making for 3 1/2 years," Wright said.

"It wasn’t like, a plan in terms of my follow-up to Baby Driver is going to be a SPARKS documentary. I wanted to — in between narrative films — do something different, but it wasn’t like, really planned. I kept talking about it to friends. Not in the sense that I was gonna do it. I talked about it in the sense that somebody should do a documentary about SPARKS. And I just became more and more convinced that SPARKS was like, the best and most influential band that did not have a documentary about them. Also they’re a band that some people love, but other people do not know at all, and their place in music history has not been documented as it should; because they have had a huge footprint, even beyond what most people can even sort of fathom. So, I would frequently to fellow music fans say, ‘Somebody’s gotta make a documentary about SPARKS. It’d be so great.'"

Eventually, Wright said, director Phil Lord called him on it.

"We were at a SPARKS gig in like, October 2017 — right after Baby Driver had come out — so we were at a SPARKS gig in L.A. and I was doing my usual spiel of, 'Somebody’s gotta make a SPARKS documentary.' And he said, 'You should make that movie!' And I was like, 'Yes! I will!' So I mentioned it to Ron and Russell that night. At this point I had only really known them for two years. They were really into it. In terms of strategy, it was actually the same financiers that did Baby Driver — MRC — made this movie, so I don’t know if they were like, humoring me by letting me make it," Wright laughed, "but it was something that I really wanted to do. I thought this would be a great thing to do, alongside a new movie, and that’s sort of how it worked out. By the time that I had shot the first bit of the SPARKS documentary, which was in the summer of 2018, I had already written the first draft of Last Night in Soho. So that existed and then I was shooting Sparks on and off through, I guess, the next year. And then I was prepping Last Night in Soho. And then I did one final bit of filming while I was editing Last Night in Soho." 

Despite these projects overlapping, Wright doesn’t consider himself a multi-tasker by nature. 

"I think I’m a terrible multi-tasker," he said, “and I always complain to my producer Nira Park I’m bad at multi-tasking, in terms of when I’m in something it’s very difficult for me to think of anything else. That said, I think this was the first time that it’s kind of worked for me, and partly because making the SPARKS documentary was just pure pleasure for me. It was like, beyond having to do little bits of research before an interview. The rest of it was just stuff that I wanted to know."

Wright conducted the film's 80 interviews himself.

"But they were questions I wanted to ask, so it wasn’t like making a documentary on a historical subject or something and you have to do a lot of work and research. For the most part, I knew what story I wanted to tell and what I wanted to ask and who I wanted to talk to. Really, most of the pre-production was managing to track down the interviewees we wanted to speak to," he said.

"And also I followed SPARKS around the world a little bit because they were touring. So during the production they were in London. I shot like, an entire concert; which is actually gonna be on the Blu-ray/DVD. I shot an entire concert in London, and then I also went to Mexico with them for their first-ever gig in Mexico as SPARKS, which is kind of wild, in their 50th year," Wright laughed.

"And then I went to Japan with them as well. And then the interviews were conducted in Los Angeles, New York and London. In terms of multi-tasking, the weird thing is that I finished both movies on the same day, which is really strange. So on Dec. 21 I did a tech check: 10 a.m. Last Night in Soho, 2:30 p.m. The Sparks Brothers, which is definitely, at the end of that I was like, 'That’s a lot of movie for one day!'" 

In my interview with documentary filmmaker R.J. Cutler, he told me that even though he doesnt direct narrative features, he still often creates a written document as a guideline for his films. I asked Wright if he created any such document in preparation for The Sparks Brothers, or did he simply find the film in the editing? 

"The SPARKS story is not like a conventional trajectory of any band," Wright said.

"That’s why I wanted to make the documentary; because their career is very unusual. And most music documentaries about a band, who have been here for a long time, have a rise and fall and rise again, because that’s quite a standard story. There’s sort of like, career peaks and then tragedy or commercial failure or something, and then kind of a way of getting back to a happy place. And with SPARKS, they’re more like,” Wright made several little up and down motions with his hand and laughed.

"I think the inspirational thing about Sparks is it’s a story of owning your successes and failures. If you can be proud of your successes and failures, there’s a way through it. The thing about Sparks, I sort of had the sense of the story I wanted to tell, who I wanted to speak to, what was important, so I didn’t do that document, but I did do it before I started editing," he said.

"And me and the producer George Hencken said, 'If you were going to take the Syd Field approach to the story, what would it be?' And literally you take that kind of beat sheet calculator thing and then we sort of looked at it in terms of it wasn’t a traditional narrative, but there was like, an obvious low point and the path to — if not a comeback — but a steady rise. The obvious real low point in the movie is where they essentially stop being SPARKS to get a movie made and put all their chips on that and then that doesn’t happen, and then you’ve been out of the game for six years."

Wright explained that the music scene moves very fast.

"They were already like, on the fringes before they took six years off. So then they have to start again. And I think the thing that I find amazing watching it is there seems like, seven or eight points in the story where other bands would have jacked it in. So I did do a beat sheet after I had shot everything, just as an attempt to say, 'If you are breaking this into a three-act structure, what would it be?'" 

Similar to The Sparks Brothers, Baby Driver is a love letter to music. The film’s protagonist cannot function without music — to the point in which he isn’t able to drive away from a crime scene without the right song playing. Is this a reflection of Wright himself? Does he write with music playing and if so, what kind of music plays when he writes? Does he create a specific playlist for a script?

"Yes. Absolutely. I do write with music. I find it incredibly inspiring to do it, and I find it difficult to write without music playing. Say with Last Night in Soho, which is partially set in the '60s, I had this monster '60s playlist. So I had this kind of enormous, 300-track '60s playlist that would just be what I’d listen to on shuffle when I wrote that script. Or way back when we were doing Shaun of the Dead — before like, iTunes and everything — me and Simon [Pegg] would have a CD of John Carpenter scores and GOBLIN’s Suspiria score and the Dawn of the Dead score and the score from The Fog, and we would just listen to spooky music all the time," he said.

"I find it easier to listen to score and instrumentals when I’m writing. If I’m listening to something with lyrics, it has to be something that I’ve heard like, hundreds of times. The thing that I can’t do is listen to new music with lyrics when I’m writing. When we were writing The World’s End — where the playlist in that movie is all of the songs from the characters’ youth — they’re all like, early '90s songs. So again, we had this playlist of like, ’88 to ’93 and it would just be hundreds of songs, and we’d just listen to them on a loop, and they were songs that we knew very well, so it never distracted us. But occasionally you’d be writing a scene and you’d say, 'Hey! This song should be in the movie! Listen to these lyrics! "Do You Remember the First Time?" by PULP. This is perfect.' Or, "Join Our Club" by SAINT ETIENNE! That should be the song for when the Blanks are trying to get our heroes to join them!' So it’s going around in the ether and you’re like, 'Hey! That lyric! That’s the one!' With Shaun of the Dead we always planned to write to "Don’t Stop Me Now," but "You’re My Best Friend" by QUEEN — which is the song that goes on the end credits of Shaun of the Dead — the reason that’s in the movie is because on QUEEN’s Greatest Hits, the CD, "You’re My Best Friend" followed "Don’t Stop Me Now." And obviously after hearing the first 30 seconds of "You’re My Best Friend" hundreds of times during the writing, I was like, 'Hey! That song starts with the lyric, "Ooh, you making me live. Ooh, you’re my best friend."' It’s a no-brainer. "You’re My Best Friend" should be the end credits track. So some of the things are planned, and some of the things are sort of happening in the room like, 'That’s the song for the end.'" 

But interestingly enough, the music of SPARKS has never been used in any of Wright’s narrative features. 

"One of the reasons I’ve never used SPARKS in one of my narrative movies is because they demand your undivided attention." Wright laughed.

"And so it’s difficult to write to SPARKS because there are so many ideas and so many lyrics and they conjure up so many scenes. But what’s interesting is I did try to use a SPARKS song in Hot Fuzz — "This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us" — in the scene where Simon Pegg and Timothy Dalton are fighting in the model village, and I tried it with the edit and it started sort of great and it worked, but then I found myself not watching the scene ... I was listening to SPARKS!" Wright laughed again.

"SPARKS cannot be in the background; and that’s a credit to them, that’s a compliment to them. They’re not wallpaper. SPARKS kind of grab you by the lapels and force you to listen."

I added that their songs are like movies. 

"Exactly," Wright said.

"You’re absolutely right. So it’s like, I never used SPARKS in a soundtrack and to make up for it, I thought I’d do a separate movie about SPARKS." 

The Sparks Brothers will be theatrically released on June 18 by Focus Features.

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