The Sparks Brothers, from Focus Features and director Edgar Wright, is a documentary that looks at the 50-year career of Sparks, a musical duo made up of brothers Ronald and Russell Mael. Considered rock’s original ‘odd couple’ — Russell the younger, charismatic front man, and Ron, the older, deadpan writer/keyboardist — Sparks has never followed musical trends, and as a result, has influenced countless musicians with their 25 albums. Still, their story isn’t well known, even by their biggest fans. This documentary looks to reveal how Sparks became “your favorite band’s favorite band”.
Paul Trewartha edited the feature, which runs two-and-a-half hours and features interviews with musicians that include Beck, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, Nick Rhodes, John Taylor, Todd Rundgren, Fred Armisen and Jane Wiedlin, among many others. All share a love of the band, and cite them as a major influence. Ron and Russell also sat down for several interviews that reflect on their history.
According to Trewartha, it was his work with Wright and producer Nira Park on behind-the-scenes content over the past decade that led to his involvement on this feature.
“We’ve found a good shorthand and shared aesthetic,” he says of their past work. “From the moment I came on-board, we were speaking the same language.”
Trewartha began cutting the feature back in 2019, coming on-board shortly after finishing work on Ronnie’s, a documentary about Ronnie Scott’s jazz club.
“There was a vast amount of content,” he says of The Sparks Brothers. “For all feature doc projects you expect a huge amount of content, and it’s problematic if you don’t have it. This was pretty exceptional.”
The 11 interviews with Ron and Russell Mael — who were shot in Los Angeles, New York, London, Mexico and Tokyo — equated to more than 18 hours of footage alone. On top of that, there were interview with 80 musicians, actors and fans — all shot black & white — as well as 50 years worth of archival material. Cinematographer Jake Polonsky captured the new material, shooting in black & white on a Red camera.
“They used a system called FileMaker, and had broken out a lot of the archives, and had given it a coded system, so that was all very organized,” Trewartha recalls of the footage. “It’s just that there is so much of it! The original task is always to make that vast archive accessible so that you have what you want when you need it.”
Photo (L-R): Ron and Russell Mael with director Edgar Wright
The film’s introduction begins with Ron and Russell’s early lives, their parents, venturing out to start their first band and the setbacks they encountered along the way. While they are from California, it was the UK that initially embraced their quirky sound and led many to believe they were actually a ‘British band’. The film then covers each of their 25 albums in chronological order.
“Edgar always had a very clear idea that he wanted to do justice to every single album,” says Trewartha. “I think he felt (that) what every hard core Sparks fan wanted to see was a connection from album to album, which was only going to be possible if we tracked it that way.
“I think Sparks are particularly unique because their sound changes so drastically from album to album,” he continues. “I think if you take someone who is uninitiated, and start with the first album, and then move on to the fifth or tenth album, it would be extremely difficult for anybody to be able to grapple with how their sound developed over time and the nuances of their artistic career.”
Ron and Russell were also keen on showing the band as an entity that is continually developing and moving forward.
“We even specifically use a quote from Ron in the film, where he says he ‘hates looking back,’” says Trewartha.
Some of the first sequences he cut were based around stop-motion animation created for the film. In one sequence, for example, an animated John Lennon figure is calling Ringo Starr to share what he’s seeing on TV — a Sparks performance. Other sequences feature figures of Ron and Russell playing out scenes from the past.
“(They) are beautiful, but time consuming and require storyboarding and a lot of back and forth,” he says of the animated sequences. “I would build sound design and interview content to cover those sections, and we’d kick off that process.”
For the album segments, each was created at a natural length and then culled down for what appears in the film.
“When we were able to string them back to back, we had this huge, long cut,” he says of the 25 album segments. “It wasn’t watchable because it was so long, but it was watchable in chunks, so we were able to distill from those albums what we felt would be fantastic to use as a platform to investigate a thematic point. And that’s how we were able to draw those out and shape the arc. It was a nice way to work and a different way to work, but it worked well.”
Trewartha used Adobe Premiere Pro to cut the project. The team agreed that working in 2K would be the most appropriate resolution, as it would not require them to blow up the standard definition archival material too much, and would be more practical than having such a long timeline loaded with, say, 4K footage.
“The most important (thing) was staying on top of the project and making sure it doesn’t bloat, and to keep streamlining it and thinning it,” says the editor, “doing a lot of rendering as you are going along, because the timeline is so long and you don’t want to put too much pressure on the system. You want to alleviate pressure on the system so you can work the way you want to work.”
Premiere Pro worked well with the way he had his timeline set up — sometimes 20 audio tracks deep and 12 video tracks high. And this being a documentary about recording artists, the film is loaded with music. Ultimately, 108 tracks made it into the final film.
“Edgar has inexhaustible enthusiasm for content — interviews, music…We all benefited and were inspired by his enthusiasm,” says Trewartha. “We had the gift of having so many great comments from so many great people…They seem like quite an eclectic bunch, but the common theme is they absolutely love Sparks!”