An Urban Renewal Project – The Sparks Brothers (2021)

I don’t know what it is exactly, but 2021 is an absolutely stacked year for documentaries. Maybe it was the Covid year that pushed some releases back but, no matter your interest, there’s something for everyone. If you are a fan of the band Sparks, The Sparks Brothers documentary is a passionate love letter that showcases their longevity, creative brilliance, and artistic integrity. If you’re not a Sparks fan…well, get ready for that to change. 

Edgar Wright (middle) with Russell (left) and Ron Mael (right) of Sparks

Edgar Wright’s super-fandom was the catalyst for his first documentary feature coming together around Ron and Russell Mael and potentially responsible for informing the filmmakers’ sense of humor and storytelling style. 

Ron (left) and Russell (Mael) having fun with the documentary

Ron and Russell are obviously the stars of the doc, both in their interviews specifically for the film and in the substantial amount of footage of their performances and music videos, but the talking heads include all kinds of fans from Beck to Flea to Mike Myers to Todd Rundgren. Seeing all the different types of artists who have been influenced by Sparks gives you a taste of diverse and broad their musical stylings were. 

The film recounts the Mael brothers’ childhood upbringing and influences and how that led them to form a band where their first recordings happened under the name Urban Renewal Project. The name was lost in favor of Halfnelson, which also didn’t go over well, and they finally landed on Sparks under Warner Records. The rest is a very complex, extensive history of artistic exploration and reinvention across five decades and 25 albums, all mostly in the shadows of the most popular bands across those eras. 

This is a well-told piece of narrative filmmaking (and the visual storytelling is exceptional) that highlights all the things Wright loves and appreciates about Sparks while making it accessible and compelling for fans and newcomers alike. 

Recommendation: Even if you have never heard of Sparks, this is an excellent documentary that’s worth your time and it might just open the doors to a whole new world of music for you to love.

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