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What’s the Worst That Could Happen

MRQE Top Critic

The Peanut Butter Falcon

It's the movie's heart which ultimately makes Peanut Butter Falcon take flight. —Matt Anderson (review...)

The Peanut Butter Falcon

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It’s a testament to the Sparks Brothers that viewers can walk away from a 140-minute documentary about their career — spanning five decades — with one irresistible and vital message: stay hungry.

Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins

Russell and Ron Mael
Russell and Ron Mael

This is a documentary about the joy of creativity or, more specific to brothers Ron and Russell Mael, the need to be creative. During their 50-year career, they’ve released 25 albums. But they advise fans to be on the outlook for an additional 200-300 more thanks to the miracle of modern medical advances. “Retirement” is a notion that — happily — has no place here.

Take a hot second to think about that. They’re a pop-rock band that started in the 1960s and endured all sorts of nonsense the world could throw at them through the decades. But the gist of the movie is about the creative spirit. Sex and drugs are conspicuously absent. Well, there is that romance between Russell and Jane Wiedlin (of the Go-Go’s), but even that was “sparked” by creativity. And, for the record, Wiedlin participates in the documentary, one of many celebrities who appear in support of what the movie purports to be your band’s favorite band. The roster of talking heads includes Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Beck, Weird Al Yankovic, author Neil Gaiman and Steve Jones (Sex Pistols).

No rehab stints. No late-night hospital runs.

One of the most endearing aspects of The Sparks Brothers is the focus on their creative foundation. The two have to look no further than their parents for some important inspirational experiences during their formative years. It’s so cool to hear them speak so affectionately about their mom and dad, Miriam and Meyer. Stories of going into the theatre after a movie’s already started. It’s not a sad story of child deprivation; a source of family fun came from thinking creatively and crafting their own stories for how the characters got to that point in the movie.

And Mom. Great Mom. She took Ron and Russell to see the Beatles. Twice. One concert involved a road trip from coastal California to Las Vegas. Miriam rocked. And it’s touching — fitting — this movie is dedicated to her and Meyer.

A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing

After their original band name, Urban Renewal Project, not so surprisingly failed to catch on with any eardrums, the Mael brothers took inspiration from the Marx Brothers and renamed their musical endeavor to the Sparks Brothers. Still, the band was consistently written off as nothing more than a novelty act in the U.S.; success finally came with their arrival in England and they would go on to be dubbed “the best British band ever to come out of America.”

There’s no denying the power of the story that’s here, but director (and unabashed fan) Edgar Wright, best known for comedies with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as well as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Baby Driver, makes his documentary debut with this project and skews the story a little too much. As the true-life story unfolds with archival footage, there’s still a Spinal Tap vibe running in the background. Theirs is such a colorful story and yet it feels like something’s missing.

Surely there were real-life Spinal Tap moments as these guys relentlessly broke new musical ground. And surely there was drama in some form or fashion.

But, as it stands, the height of the drama revolves around a six-year stretch in the late ‘80s-early ‘90s which found the brothers struggling to get any new material released. An exciting movie project with Tim Burton fell through and that understandably put them in a funk. At this point, there’s some real emotion on display as Christi Haydon, the band’s drummer at the time, opens up and breaks down on camera. She acknowledges the rest of the band cried following that crushing blow, which followed another disappointment from years earlier, an abandoned movie project with French film legend Jacques Tati.

Angst in My Pants

Jane Wiedlin with Russell Mael
Jane Wiedlin with Russell Mael

And there’s that subplot involving Jane Wiedlin and her brief romance with Russell. There’s more story to mine there and the documentary only makes the desire to dig deeper all the more tantalizing with the simple observation that Ron — the relatively quiet and awkward one — wrote songs full of lyrics about awkwardness while Russell, the pretty boy front man, belted out the words on stage.

Dig in. What was the dynamic really like during that period?

Putting all of this into a larger context, the Sparks Brothers have been around for 50 years. A single 140-minute documentary couldn’t really cover it all; this is a career that deserves more along the lines of a mini-series, the type of documentary series that’s become so popular in the age of streaming, particularly with the event docu-series format found on HBO Max.

But, then again, there’s another documentary with a similar theme of creativity triumphant trying to find its way to audiences. Bleeding Audio tells the ups and downs of a band called The Matches and they similarly found their struggles surrounded the commercial aspects of the music biz. Their story also — pleasantly — avoids the typical tropes of sex, drugs, break-ups and other dramatic cliches.

As it stands, the Sparks Brothers continue their musical journey and of late have found perhaps their biggest success yet with F.F.S. — a collaboration with Franz Ferdinand. As told here, there’s plenty of humor to be had as the two bands reach a creative crescendo. It’s the kind of success story that offers fresh hope for a creative release for creative, persistent artists young and old alike.