Irony is a word that pops up a lot in discussing the group Sparks — in their content, and in their career. And here’s an irony for you: When brothers Ron and Russell Mael created a project called “The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman” many years back, it was with the intent of it being a movie musical, with roles for 13 actors. That didn’t pan out, so it ended up as an album and nearly impossible-to-stage touring show. In reaction to that experience, they bypassed any thought of their next rock opera, “Annette,” being a movie, and kept it to four key characters so that it would work more easily as a concept album and tour. And, of course, that’s the one that became a movie musical.
French director Leos Carax’s adaptation makes its streaming debut on Amazon Prime Video this weekend after opening in theaters two weeks ago. Whichever side of the divisive “Annette” fence you end up on — and if you’ve read very many reviews or reactions to the film, you know there are two — “Annette” remains one of the audacious and essential cinematic experiences of the year.
Reversals of fortune loom large in Sparks’ history, and they’re enjoying their happiest one yet in 2021, as the world at large discovers or rediscovers them while hardcore fans celebrate the 50th anniversary of their debut album. Prior to “Annette” came Edgar Wright’s much-loved documentary, “The Sparks Brothers,” which premiered as part of the Sundance Film Festival, followed by the opening night Cannes bow for Leos Carax’s film, a sung-through tuner which veers as far away from documentary style as a free-flying cinema stylist can get.
One of these films feels happy-go-lucky and the other one not so much so, although it all adds up to a kind of joy in Sparks’ book. As Ron Mael says: “To us, something can be uplifting even if the tone of it is not cheerful — it can be uplifting because it’s just so well done.” And while “Annette” may initially seem to lack a lot of the mirth that people have associated over the years with the band that did “Angst in My Pants,” trust us: the humor inherent in some of the lyrics and the fantastical or absurdist situations comes through more on a second viewing. It’s intriguing to think about how the tone might or might not have differed as a Maels-sung stage show, in any case, which is where our discussion with the brothers begins.
Variety: You’ve mentioned you were at the Cannes Film Festival when you met Leos Carax eight years ago. What took you to the festival, at that point?
Russell: We had the project “The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman” that we had done for the Swedish National Radio as a radio music drama. After we had done that, we thought it was really something worth pursuing as a movie project as well, so we went there to try to get meetings regarding that. And then as a by-product, an acquaintance of ours hooked us up with Leos just for us to be able to say thank you for using one of our songs in “Holy Motors.”
Ron: It wasn’t until we got back to L.A. that we thought maybe we should send him this project that we’d been working on that was going to be a Sparks project — a live show (of “Annette”). There really wasn’t any intent on our part for it to be a movie, but we thought, “Well, let’s just send it to him and see what he says.”
Russell: For no real reason at all, other than just to get his feedback, because he was a fan of Sparks; we thought we’d just show him what we were up to at the time.
Did you have a script you sent him, for what you foresaw doing with it on stage at the time? Or was it just the album you sent?
Ron: Well, it was the album, but in our own minds, that really was the script. We learned since then that movie people really need the physical, typed-out screenplay. [Laughs.] But since the piece is pretty much wall-to-wall singing, we were really in a way bypassing the step of there being a screenplay.
Was “Annette” really finished as an album at that point when you presented it to him, eight years ago? And if so, is that something that might be released someday?
Russell: Well, it was done in our minds. And since then, when the movie was made with Leos, new scenes have been added. “Sympathy for the Abyss” and “Girl From the Middle of Nowhere” weren’t in our original version. But the basic story was still the same story, and probably 80% of the pieces were still there. They’ve gone through some revisions with Leos since. But our version was ready to go. yeah.
There’s a 15-song version of the soundtrack that’s out now, (with the subtitle) “The Cannes Edition — Selections From the Movie Soundtrack of ‘Annette’.” But the plan is to have later in the year the entire soundtrack on an album, as well. On that one, it was actually Leos’ suggestion to include a few of our original-version pieces that he really liked, just to show where it came from.
When you recorded it and were going to tour it as a concert production, is it true that Ron was singing the conductor part?
Ron: Yeah, Russell was doing what turned out to be the Adam Driver part, and I was doing the conductor part. And then a soprano, Rebecca Sjöwall, an opera singer who has sung on some of our material, was going to play the third part. I mean, the origin of it really was that we enjoyed doing the “Ingmar Bergman” project so much, but there were so many characters involved in order to be able to tour with that that we wanted to have a piece that had fewer featured performers. So it was working backwards in a certain way. But we were going to be the three main characters, and then it was going to be a representation of the Annette character by a doll in a pram, dimly lit, so that it becomes believable in some sense.
I was wondering if the doll or marionette was a crucial part of it for you that carried over from the original conception to the film. “Annette” as a name does combine Ann, the mother’s name, and “marionette.”
Ron: Well, not really, no. That actually was Leos’ idea. Just because we were going to be performing it in a theatrical way, we weren’t going to use a real girl, but Leos could have used a real girl for the whole thing. What he ended up going just works brilliantly. With just the actors, you know, you never get the feeling that they don’t really believe that this marionette is real the entire time.
Was there an impetus behind creating the story — a character or a situation or crucial scene?
Ron: The image of a baby singing was there for me. So it really started with that idea in mind, and then everything else coalesced around it.
With the toddler singing, I have to admit that when I first saw the movie, I was wondering if she would actually sing when she got on stage, just because it’s so fantastical — and I thought of the Warner Brothers cartoon “One Froggy Evening,” where these shows are booked for the singing frog but then he never delivers. This is like “One Froggy Evening,” except the frog does actually sing… It’s probably safe to say this was not part of your inspiration.
Russell: [They laugh.] It wasn’t the original intention, but, uh, yeah.
What did Leos add that maybe took it in a surprising or different direction from your conception?
Russell: Like I mentioned, there were a couple of pieces that had been added at Leos’ suggestion. But I think the thing that was the most unknown element that he did brilliantly was visualizing scenes that we had only two-dimensional versions of in musical form. A scene like this crazed waltz that the character Henry suggests they do aboard the ship during the storm, that was in our original version, but the way Leos brought it to life was beautiful and surprising in a great way to us. There had been some discussion of what would be the best way to shoot that scene, and whether it should be done on a real ocean in a real boat, or on a soundstage in a more artificial way [as in the end result]. The scene when Henry and the baby Annette wash up onto the island almost looks like a theater piece, done incredibly well.
Ron: I really love that it wasn’t a concern to Leos to make there be a consistency between those more artificial settings and then realistic settings, like the opening scene where it’s in a recording studio and then moves out onto the real streets of Santa Monica. Each scene can be handled differently.
Film automatically literalizes things from what they would be in a pure rock opera, to a certain extent. But when you’ve got a scene with baby on stage atop a monolith at the Super Bowl, it’s only going to be so literal.
Ron: There are quite a few films that use an American football stadium setting as a background, but having it being so stylized really is beautiful. Maybe it took a French director to bring that kind of view of an American football game.
There was one review that was a rave that said this is a story of toxic masculinity. Another critic saw it as a statement about show business.
Ron: To us, those things come after the fact. We don’t start off with the idea of making a movie musical that kind of revolves around those kinds of ideas, but obviously those are kind of issues within the film. It just wasn’t the primary or initial intent. You know, it sounds kind of banal, but we just wanted to make a cool, modern movie musical, and we felt a real kinship with Leos to be able to achieve that.
Russell: We think it can incorporate those two themes that you mentioned, but then just to say “This is what it’s about” kind of almost shortchanges the movie, because it incorporates so many elements. And also, we think the fresh perspective on how to do a movie musical in this day and age can be a statement in itself, beyond the thematic elements that are within it. “Annette” came out I think the same week as “Jungle Cruise,” and it’s kind of almost working in two different mediums. They both get projected onto a screen, but I can’t think of anything further apart. And there’s nothing wrong with an entertainment movie — that’s fine, too. But I know the intentions of Leos Carax were to do something that’s really unique as a cinematic event, and that’s inherent in all of our intentions, along with those thematic elements that do enter.
It’s not the first time anyone has skewed the movie musical form toward downbeat themes — people think of “New York, New York” and “Dancer in the Dark” — but it’s still a fairly unexplored subgenre. And when people think of Sparks — and Edgar Wright’s documentary reinforces this — there’s a sense of mirth a lot of the time. There are laughs in “Annette,” but that’s not the overall intent. Did you welcome the chance to take this as dark as you did, both in terms of your career and in the history of movie musicals?
Ron: Yeah. I mean, it’s a cliche that a movie musical has to be uplifting in a traditional way. To us, something can be uplifting even if the tone of it is not cheerful — it can be uplifting because it’s just so well done. It wasn’t even a decision to take on a darker tone. It was just where the story took us, and we followed it. People that maybe are expecting a traditional Hollywood musical ending where everybody is out on the street dancing in the sun might be disappointed. But overcoming all the expectations of what a traditional movie musical is made us happy.
You had that long standing ovation at Cannes, and there’ve been rapturous reviews. Cannes also had some walkouts, and there are critics who’ve really torn into it, as if they were personally offended.
Ron: Well, we’re used to that, being in Sparks, you know? [Laughs.] We don’t set out to be polarizing. But just by the nature of what we’ve always done, it seems to have a certain polarizing aspect, so it kind of seemed almost natural that a film that we would be involved in would have that same kind of reaction. Obviously, you want to be universally adored in what you’re doing, and especially just because other incredible people are involved in the “Annette” project, you hate to see there be any kind of negativity about it. But I think it is a statement about the strength of the film, that it would elicit those strong reactions both ways. I would prefer that rather than just, “Oh, it’s a really good film.” Part of it is what people bring to it themselves, and what they’re expecting from a musical and it maybe not being what they expected. But I think if somebody really is open-minded about things, it isn’t something so puzzling or alienating, at least from my point of view.
You guys are having a victory lap year, between this and the Edgar Wright documentary. Have you gotten used to not being underdogs, but overdogs?
Russell: [Laughs.] We’ve gone mainstream. We decided that was something we wanted to do for 2021, our new mainstream phase.
Ron: “What haven’t we tried? Go mainstream!”
Russell: We’re happy that both films have managed to bring a new perspective on Sparks. We always wanted to have a movie musical be made and be seen by a lot of people. And the documentary that Edgar Wright made was done with a lot of care and passion on his part— three years’ worth of work to get it to where it is, and to explain us to people that don’t know about the band, and then provide an extensive journey for people that do. And so we’re just really happy about the effect that both projects have had.
We’re doing a big tour of North America starting in February. It was initially going to be just one night at Disney Hall, and we were thrilled, and then it sold out almost immediately, so they added a second night and that sold out. There’s been this groundswell of stuff happening for the band. And it’s really worked in reverse where it’s just rejuvenating our spirits, all of this attention — so much that we’re three-quarters of the way through a new Sparks album. Then we’re going to be touring extensively next year all around the world, and then we’ve also started a brand new movie musical project as well. It’s being written now, as we speak, and we want to get it finished as soon as we can, because we’re really excited about that form. The ability to now be able to do all these things and know people will get to actually hear and know about them in a bigger way than might’ve been in the past is something that really helps strengthen your spirit.
Mojo magazine ran a sidebar on your filmography over the last 50 years, and it’s mostly thwarted things, like the one planned with Jacques Tati, or eccentric asterisks like “Rollercoaster.” And suddenly here you are: movie stars.
Russell: Edgar in his documentary also (dealt with) the other past film experiences that didn’t happen. One of the themes in the documentary was perseverance against all odds and sticking to your creative viewpoint to do what you think is right artistically. And if things happen, they happen, but the only thing at the end of the day that you have is your integrity and your art. And so Edgar was really, I think, vindicated in his whole story, that at the end, not only musically as Sparks but also in the film wing of Sparks, that finally a project that we’ve always grasped at is finally materialized. And so, contrary to the story within “Annette” [laughs], the story within the Netflix documentary has a very happy and wistful sort of ending to it.
How did you enjoy being in the movie at the beginning and the end? And we know that’s the Village Recorders in West L.A. where the opening sequence starts, but is that park where the cast and crew gather over the end credits also in Los Angeles?
Russell: No, at the end of the movie, the piece called “The End,” that was shot outside a forest in Brussels, oddly enough. That end piece was actually shot before the beginning piece, “So May We Start,” which was almost the last thing that was shot for the movie. After all the European shooting, then we came back to L.A. to do that at Village Recorders and then out onto the street on Santa Monica Boulevard. Those bookends were also in our original version.
“So May We Start” is this piece that’s happening before the movie actually takes place. with all of the characters not yet in their stage personas, and them all talking about how difficult it is to get a movie off the ground: “The budgets are large, but still they’re not large enough.” And “the authors are here, so let’s not show disdain / The authors are here, and they’re a little vain” is another one of the lines. It’s self-referential to the movie you’re about to see, and we had that idea from the beginning. But then to see how Leos filmed it was really fantastic — that one long, uncut shot where a cameraman is having to walk backwards for four and a half minutes, (preceding) us down Santa Monica Boulevard while not banging into parking meters. To be in the opening scene of the movie was really a treat… a thrill.