Thursday, September 16

50 years with the Sparks: how the musical geniuses behind ‘Annette’ reached the prime of their careers


Some might think of Annette’s powerful start as an unfulfilled promise. The energy conveyed by the theme So May We Start It never has a replica to match in the remaining footage of the latest Leos Carax film, and disappointment can spread without actually defeating its purpose. First of all, because already at the beginning of Holy motors —His previous feature film— the French filmmaker seemed to despise both the public’s expectations and his ability to connect with a sublime art while dying. Second, because the entire performance of the number pursues the idea of ​​a sham.

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Carax himself appears on the screen, indicating to the musicians that they can play. These musicians are Ron and Russell Mael, the same Mael brothers who a few seconds later leave the recording booth without the music being interrupted, revealing itself as an entity alien to material designs. Ron takes his jacket, Russell his scarf, and they leave the building in a procession which is later joined by Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard and Simon Helberg. The sequence shot used accentuates the lack of interest in hiding the deception: this is a musical, no one has to play instruments to bewitch our ears. It is insisted that everything is a representation; once the number ends, even Driver and Cotillard separate to run to star in their corresponding scene.

Annette It will no longer abandon this abrupt visibility of the artifice. Because Carax has wanted it that way, but above all because its main promoters have been living on it for half a century.


I Want To Be Like Everybody Else

Ron and Russell Mael, born in Los Angeles in the 1940s, are the Sparks. They are the scriptwriters and composers of Annette, and also that musical duo perpetually associated with a specific image. A handsome singer with jerky movements and a virtuous voice, capable of accumulating octaves and gurgles without disheveled. Beside him an expressionless guy playing the keyboard, occasionally humming a few choruses to himself under a Charlot / Hitler mustache. The contrast of dynamism and sullenness provides an indelible stamp, lends itself to staying in our retinas regardless of how catchy the song is.

The staging is as important to the Sparks as the music that surrounds it. And this goes far beyond the pregnancies that his combined figure acquires – heir to the first comic cinema – because he never stops looking for alternative expressions. An even more obvious example can be found on the covers of his albums: in Angst in my pants appeared as husband and wife, in Propaganda as hostages about to be killed … and in My House Kimono just two appeared geisha unidentified. All these disguises appealed to an impulse to flee, an effort to hide identity behind unpredictable and ironic masks. The occurrence of titled their seventh album – released when they were already well known – as Introducing Sparks it is, in this sense, paradigmatic.

But every impulse to escape frames the desire to find a better version of oneself, and in the case of a group like the Sparks, this version is in principle the one that guarantees greater economic success. When they released their first album in 1971 it was called after the same group, Halfnelson, and did not sell anything. Nobody paid the slightest attention to Halfnelson. The Mael brothers then looked for an alternative name for the band, something with more hook, and they renamed themselves Sparks. The album was also called like that, Sparks, and was reissued with better fortune.

Ron and Russell were aware of the quality of their compositions — drawn for the most part from the keyboard player’s taste for challenging his brother with seemingly impossible-to-play melodies — but also that these by themselves would not win. A scaffolding was necessary, an aesthetic concept. And the 70s were the ideal decade to start assuming that the medium was the message.

It is common to associate the Sparks’ early years with the glam rock, both because of the sound itself – which related them to contemporaries such as T-Rex or David Bowie – and because of the importance that the performative plays in their work, the disappearance behind a beautifully designed image that the Mael brothers carried from the rapid establishment of a way of inhabiting the stage to an ingenious jumble of strategies to ascend in the media.

Promoting their second album, they went on tour to the United Kingdom and it was then that the influence of the British invasion on their compositions – of the Who and the Kinks, especially – had to be combined with multiple changes among the backing musicians to make the band think. press that the Sparks were illustrious British citizens. And that’s how they’ve been sold ever since.


The history of the Sparks is that of a succession of disguises and mutations, of which their music was also the object of time. The docile pop wisdom of Slowboat —Ballad responsible for the success of the debut album — instantly alternated with arrogance glam and the convoluted humor that characterizes the Sparks lyrics –Girl from Germany, making tightrope jokes with the memory of the Holocaust, is the best example – but it was not until the aforementioned My House Kimono when the world witnessed something truly unclassifiable. Released in 1974 it contained his best known song, This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us; a piece of enormous complexity that there are those who consider a direct precedent of the Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen.

As is often the case in these cases, the impact of My House Kimono shook the control that up to that moment the Sparks had maintained over their career, forcing them to reconcile continuity – happily represented with Propaganda– with failed breakups –Big beat and their attempt to “re-Americanize” – until the end of the decade they achieved another milestone, Nº1 in Heaven. Produced by the legendary Giorgio Moroder, the Sparks radically changed their style to flirt with synthesizers, top stars of the 80s that were about to open, and thus sign an essential album in the gestation of disco music and other flourishing genres. From the sound of Joy Division to that of Depeche Mode, the relevance of Nº1 in Heaven It is immeasurable, and it set a peak from which the Sparks could comfortably continue to try other things.


A pending account

By the 1990s, the Sparks’ productive rhythm had not slowed, but their greatest successes were far away and it was tempting to dismiss them as old glories. Resulting in that self-awareness that propelled their career, in 1994 they published Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins, from which another basic song was extracted: When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’. On this issue Russell was wondering, indeed, if his best days had already passed, and if therefore he had already earned the right to sing a solemn ‘My Way’ a la Sinatra that would put a worthy finishing touch to his career. Of course it was another great joke, and the Sparks didn’t stop there. In fact, they managed to return to the present day with renewed intensity.

In the last twenty years we have seen Sparks more indefatigable if possible, while at the same time comfortable in front of a fandom that does not demand epic gestures, but only new ideas with which they surpass themselves. Shortly after the critics saluted Lil ‘beethoven in 2002 as another masterpiece of so many, the Sparks plunged into the Sparks Spectacular —A crazy event of playing all their records in chronological order for 21 nights in a row — and they teamed up with Franz Ferdinand to develop FFS, an exquisite joint album where a song titled Collaborations Don’t Work he put on the usual comic note. This happened in 2015, when it seemed that the Sparks had already achieved it all, while at the same time finding a way to satisfy a claim that had previously led to the biggest disappointments of their careers.


Hippopotamus, released in 2017, included a song titled When You’re a French Director, and in it we could hear the voice of Leos Carax propping up an affectionate mockery of European cinema and the politics of authors. Carax had met the Sparks five years earlier, presenting Holy motors in Cannes – where a song by the group was playing, How Are You Getting Home?– and from their enthusiastic conversations had arisen the idea of ​​producing Annette. But where did it come from Annette? Well, the Sparks’ obsession with working in the movies: one that could be traced back to their college years, where both Ron and Russell had studied in order to be part of this world.

Since then, there had been no shortage of opportunities to honor this hobby — the cinephile winks in the Sparks songs are innumerable — just as there had been no shortage of opportunities to turn it into something else. The Mael brothers made a cameo in the disaster movie Roller coaster at the end of the 70s, and they lent their music to films such as The girl from the valley —Starring a very comfortable Nicolas Cage in the duo’s creative universe— or In the eye of the hurricane, directed by the same Tsui Hark who had been honored in a song by Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins. And yet his most notable projects were, precisely, those that had the worst fortune: in the 80s they could not complete a film with Jacques Tati due to his death, and in the 90s the ordeal of what would end up being called The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman.

Conceived as the musical adaptation of a manga directed by Tim Burton, the material developed by the Mael for several decades became in 2009 a radio musical marked by cinephilia and that conflict between art, identity and capitalization that the duo had always maintained of one way or another. The story starring an Ingmar Bergman trapped in a nightmarish Hollywood was, in the first instance, the one that the Sparks asked him to direct to his new friend Leos Carax. His refusal led to Annette: a totally new story … with similar obsessions.


It has happened that in 2021, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of his first album, there has also been produced The Sparks Brothers, documentary by Edgar Wright that examines the trajectory of the group and will premiere at the next Sitges Festival. The couple that make up both films is very eloquent, because of how antagonistic they are when it comes to unraveling the creative vision of the Mael. The Sparks Brothers is a fun and agile documentary, which explores the duo’s legacy without wanting to narrow the gap between the media image and the intimate one — contrary, for example, to what Martin Scorsese wanted to do both in No Direction Home like in Rolling Thunder Revue with the enigmatic figure of Bob Dylan—, and finally signing a story with predictable meritocratic overtones about artists obsessed with preserving their integrity. It is, before anything else, a complacent and celebratory contraption, driven by admiration for the Mael.

In these we run into the paradox that a fiction like Annette, in his obsession with displaying the show’s scaffolding and constantly pointing out the representative nature of the proposal, ends up being a more faithful approximation to the Sparks’ discourse. With their lucid glimpse into the impostures of the art business, the arbitrary voracity of the public, the cannibalization of egos, and the kamikaze flirtations with that emptiness – or that abyss – that awaits at the end of it all, Ron and Russell seem to have composed their most popular song. sophisticated and definitive. There is, in short, no better year than 2021 to get to know the Sparks, because they have never known each other as well as before.



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