Sparks on Screen

It’s rather serendipitous that as 2021 was a year full of wild changes and conflicts, the unexpected beneficiaries of public curiosity and appreciation would be two outwardly unassuming brothers possessing jaw-dropping musical virtuosity known as Sparks! Edgar Wright’s cheerful and colorful documentary The Sparks Brothers updated people on the Mael brothers, their long history, and large and ever-changing catalog, and then they provided an unconventional mix of operetta and earworms to Leos Carax’s challenging musical Annette with Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. This one-two cultural combo provided a real-life underdog story, elevation from respected artists, shocking images, catchy tunes, and poignant endings – so many things we look to great art to provide us.

What makes this circumstance even more appropriate is that, if you spent most of your formative years without, say, a cool radio station that played their songs, or friends that bought their albums, you very likely still got a steady education in Sparks’ output without even knowing it, just from watching movies! From high-profile studio releases to below-the-radar video store favorites (not to mention some pivotal New Beverly screenings!), their malleable musical skills have been a steady presence on fun soundtracks. As Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand recently declared, “If you want to look at Ron and Russell, you have to look at them through one prism. And that prism is cinema.”

And here are some of our favorite instances where you can find the band’s compositions hiding in plain sight, in beautiful lifelike color by DeLuxe!



James Goldstone’s 1977 thriller featured a screenplay by “Columbo” and “Murder She Wrote” creators Richard Levinson & William Link, with Timothy Bottoms playing a mad bomber targeting rollercoasters, a story which, with the combination of high-speed trams and explosions, was geared to show off Universal’s bass-heavy sound gimmick “Sensurround.” In a timely manner, Sparks, after making three albums with a band of British players, changed record labels and used a new lineup of mostly session musicians to make Big Beat, which had a more aggressive, harder rock sound. And in a performance sequence at Magic Mountain in the film (which was initially offered to Kiss), they sing “Big Boy” and “Fill-er-up” with such swagger that, if there weren’t a terrorist lurking about, they could have blown up the park themselves!



Valley Girl

Martha Coolidge’s 1983 classic teen romance may not have had the Frank & Moon Unit Zappa single that provided its title, but it did have a legendary soundtrack of totally awesome radio faves, and deep cuts that Rodney Bingenheimer would brand “godhead.” The year before, Sparks released Angst in My Pants, which began their own totally awesome three-album run with Atlantic that yielded their biggest ‘80s hits. And two of those tracks underscore the Sherman Oaks antics, including the title song, and “Eaten by the Monster of Love,” where val dude Skip pondered whether to pursue his classmate Suzi or her mom Beth.



Get Crazy

The same summer as Valley Girl became a surprise smash, New World trailer genius Allan Arkush released what many now call his masterpiece, a loony and loving tribute to his years working rock concerts for Bill Graham at the Fillmore. Unfortunately, due to production company chicanery, very few people saw it in its very short theatrical run. But over years of tape rentals, cable airings, and revival screenings (including a legendary 2007 New Beverly show hosted by Edgar Wright), it has been climbing its way back to the pantheon. And Sparks provided an original title song for the movie, for which Arkush created this special and previously unreleased promotional video.



Where the Boys Are

When Grease’s flamboyant producer Allan Carr decided to update the ‘60s girls’ on Spring Break comedy for the MTV set in 1984, he pulled I Love You Alice B. Toklas director Hy Averback out of episodic television to helm it, he put a lot of fetching faces in the cast (Lisa Hartman, Lynn-Holly Johnson, Christopher McDonald), and he put Sparks on the soundtrack. Their exclusive composition “Mini-Skirted” offers their special kind of ode to the short hemline set, with cheeky verses like “When I look around and see the sun in the sky / Bouncin’ off your knees and through my eyes / Man I’m gonna end up nearly blind!”



Bad Manners

Though likely inadvertent, Sparks seem to have had a recurring attraction with Roger Corman alumni. After supplying one song to Allan Arkush, they wrote an entire set of songs for this unruly orphans comedy, originally titled Growing Pains, directed and co-written by Robert Houston, who previously edited two installments of the Lone Wolf & Cub films to create Shogun Assassin in 1980; the post-Corman New World Pictures released this in 1984. And even by Sparks’ standards, this is one of the most eclectic lineups of talent they’ve ever been associated with. The film’s cast included Pamela Adlon, Karen Black, Russ Meyer starlet Edy Williams, “Twin Peaks” player Kimmy Robertson, and Airplane!’s Stephen Stucker. And besides themselves, artists covering their compositions here were Charlie Sexton, Gleaming Spires (whose “Are You Ready for the Sex Girls” was in both The Last American Virgin and Revenge of the Nerds), and Born in Flames star Adele Bertei, who does vocals on this track, “Things Can Change Overnight.”



Heavenly Bodies

In the wake of Flashdance, dramas full of athletics, dance, and other cardiovascular activity became a mini-genre of their own: John Avildsen’s The Karate Kid, Herbert Ross’ Footloose, James Bridges’ Perfect… even horror hybrids like Lucio Fulci’s Murderock and Sam Firstenberg’s Ninja III: The Domination were raising sweat. But when this Canadian-made and Playboy-financed tale stepped up from actor-turned-director Lawrence Dane, the peppy synth beats and unconventional lyrics of Sparks’ “Breaking Out of Prison” were the first clue that this was not your big sister’s cardio drama. The third of Sparks’ three 1984 original movie song contributions is, if not their best, definitely the favorite of everyone at the New Beverly, especially Phil Blankenship, who first got the film revived here in a midnight show for his birthday on June 8, 2008, and made it a yearly screening tradition until rights issues took it out of theatrical circulation.



Unlawful Entry

Another New World Pictures graduate, Jonathan Kaplan, enlisted the Mael brothers during an otherwise dormant period for them, and in turn they gave him another song exclusive to the film. His 1992 thriller featuring Kurt Russell and Madeline Stowe being stalked by crazed cop Ray Liotta may not have seemed the place for some quirky pop needle drops. But this particularly ironic ditty from the boys called “National Crime Awareness Week,” complete with riffs lifted from Bernard Herrmann, deftly augments the climate of fright.



Matthew Vaughn’s 2010 adaptation of the graphic novels by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr was sugar-charged with bright visuals, manic action, and heightened performances by Nicolas Cage, Chloe Moretz, and Mark Strong. And it also marked the surprising first time that Sparks’ 1974 breakout single, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us,” arguably the song that changed their career, was used in a widely-seen feature film, positioned near perfectly to underscore the tense friendship and eventual blood vendetta between rival caped avengers Kick-Ass and Red Mist.



Holy Motors

Before collaborating with them to create the one-of-a-kind 2021 musical Annette, Leos Carax let the world know of his Sparks fandom in 2012 by placing “How Are You Getting Home,” from their 1975 album Indiscreet, in his magnificent worldwide-acclaimed fantasy involving an actor, a limousine, and several various dramatic scenarios. Curiously, the song was featured in the most simple and grounded of the segments, where Denis Lavant embodied a father experiencing a rift between himself and his troubled teenage daughter, a theme that would be explored even further in Annette almost a decade later.



A Futile and Stupid Gesture

From their first album in 1971 to the decades that followed, Sparks alternately earned music critics’ respect or confusion by their seriously intelligent musicianship and their wicked sense of humor. So to close this overview of their music in movies before 2021, it’s a fine convergence that they were featured on the soundtrack of David Wain’s biopic of writer Douglas Kenney and the National Lampoon magazine and talent collective, another fiercely smart and hilarious force that came on the scene one year earlier in 1970, and also shook up the critical establishment. The extended mix of their 1979 single “Beat the Clock” produced by Giorgio Moroder, offered ruefully funny comment on the last days of Kenney, as he tries to break the cocaine addiction that would ultimately claim his life.



This list is just a sampling – there are many other films and TV shows that have been using the many different styles of Sparks to spice up their stories, with surely plenty more to come. And we’re eagerly awaiting when we can turn up the speakers at the New Beverly and experience them too!


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