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Brothers Russell and Ron Mael in director Edgar Wright’s film The Sparks Brothers.

Jake Polonsky/Focus Features

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  • The Sparks Brothers
  • Directed by Edgar Wright
  • Starring Ron Mael, Russell Mael
  • Classification PG; 140 minutes

Most people are not familiar with the flamboyant rock duo Sparks. The Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea is a fan, and in Edgar Wright’s new film The Sparks Brothers, even he asks: “Who are these guys?” There’s also a shot of the Sparks siblings Ron and Russell Mael clowning around on TV, which causes the late Dick Clark to wonder on air, “What’s going on here?”

Good question.

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Director Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver) is a big music fan. With his charismatic (if exhaustive and relentlessly chronological) debut documentary, he makes a case that Sparks is the best band we’ve never heard of. That’s a status which flatters a niche act that mainstream critics have historically regarded as a curiosity at best.

One might say that the glam-rock shenanigans and music-hall idiosyncrasies of Sparks are an acquired taste. Indeed, I believe Queen acquired that taste. Which leaves Sparks where, exactly?

On the outside looking in, mostly. Over the course of a still-active 25-album, 50-year career, the Californian pair has worked with a variety of big-name producers (Todd Rundgren, Tony Visconti, Giorgio Moroder) and shifted styles relentlessly (maybe recklessly). So prolific with their reinventions, these cheeky fellows were five albums into their career before they released 1977′s Introducing Sparks.

Because they were bigger overseas than they were in the United States, Sparks has been dubbed the best British band from America. The album titles are offbeat (1973′s A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing, 1994′s Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins) and the album artwork is clever, stylish and playful.

Their acerbic lyrics were written by the deadpan keyboardist with a funny mustache (Ron Mael) and sung by the hunky rock star singer with a high voice (Russell Mair). Seeing the brothers on television, a confused John Lennon called up Ringo Starr and told him, “Marc Bolan is playing a song with Adolf Hitler.”

Wright parades everyone from Weird Al Yankovic to Beck to Mike Myers to Patton Oswalt to Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones in front of the camera to praise this most unusual band. If there’s a consensus, it’s that Sparks can be enjoyed as pure pop chameleons and whimsical entertainers, or one can dig deeper into the songs’ sardonic and melancholic layers.

The film is too long for the non-enthusiast. And we don’t learn much about the brothers’ personal lives – it’s as if they exist for the band and nothing else. But even if the music isn’t your thing, it’s hard not to admire the duo’s commitment to their creative impulses.

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If Sparks didn’t exist, someone would have to invent them. Indeed, watching The Sparks Brothers, at times it feels like the band is a fictitious one. That might be best thing I can say about Sparks. It’s certainly the best thing I can say about this vibrant love letter of a film.

The Sparks Brothers opens June 18 in select Canadian theatres, dependent on public health restrictions

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.

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