The big-screen arrivals are sweet justice for Ron and Russell, who grew up in Southern California and have a long-standing love of cinema. Songs that they wrote for an early Sparks iteration, Halfnelson, reflected their singular combination of worship and wry skepticism when it came to famous auteurs; later, they endured the heartbreaking disintegration of film projects with the likes of Jacques Tati and Tim Burton.
All of this is covered with breakneck speed by director Edgar Wright, best known for such ratatat satires as “Shaun of the Dead” and “Baby Driver.” Wright brings his familiar scattershot style to an essentially conventional biopic, his bricolage approach entailing generous dollops of home movies, family photos, archival footage, cheeky animations and talking-head interviews.
Those interviews — given black-and-white gravitas amid an otherwise riotously colorful trip through various pop eras — include the Maels themselves, as well as such superfans as Patton Oswalt, Mike Myers, Jason Schwartzman and The Washington Post’s own David Weigel, as well as musical acolytes like Beck, Thurston Moore, “Weird Al” Yankovic and Jack Antonoff. What emerges is a bracing portrait of two musicians who were always ahead of their time, their creative prescience often at odds with commercial success. Although they enjoyed their share of hits and fame in Europe, they never quite caught on in America, where their arch literary references and mercurial changes from art pop to glam rock to electronica and beyond flew straight over the heads of audiences (not to mention corporate gatekeepers).
As “The Sparks Brothers” vibrantly demonstrates, the Maels never let the ups and downs deter them from making art. Even more than an extravagant dive into pop arcana, this film is valuable as a moving testament to perseverance, uncompromising principles and incorruptible character. There are passages when their fans are remembering or extolling particular chapters of Sparks’ career when the viewer wishes Wright had asked the Maels what it was like for them — especially the heady days of overnight fame in the United Kingdom and what some observers describe as Ron’s insecurities about his brother’s sex appeal. (Why not ask him?) We learn next to nothing about their emotional evolution as individuals or brothers. Instead, Wright dutifully chronicles a stunningly long career that has enjoyed a recent resurgence with well-received new albums and a collaboration with Franz Ferdinand.
The focus on output means that, at almost 2½ hours, “The Sparks Brothers” occasionally feels like an overlong, hyperkinetic catalogue raisonne; it would have benefited from a few darlings being whacked. But the overindulgence will be easily forgiven, for die-hard fans and newcomers alike. Beyond the music itself, “The Sparks Brothers” offers viewers a bracing example of musical curiosity and extraordinary resilience — not to mention the singular pleasure of working at your craft long enough to be accused of ripping off the acts who have been stealing from you for 50 years. The Maels live. And living Mael is the best revenge.
R. At area theaters. Contains strong language. 141 minutes.