Russell and Ron Mael of Sparks in Beverly Hills, CA on June 2, 2006.

Sparks Make Screenwriting Debut With ‘Annette’, New ‘Hippopotamus’ Album On Way

Fans of Russell and Ron Mael of the seminal art-pop band Sparks will be pleased to hear that the brothers are set to make their screenwriting debut with Annette, and their 23rd studio album, Hippopotamus, is slated for release sometime in 2017.

French director Leos Carax, known for films such as The Lovers On the Bridge and Holy Motors, has teamed up with Russell and Ron Mael to work on his ninth film, Annette. This project marks the first English-language movie for Carax. Work will begin on the new film this spring, according to Spin, and Annette is reported to have been acquired by Amazon Studios, which makes it fairly official now.

Sparks duo Russell and Ron Mael will not only be writing the new Carax film, but they will also be providing the musical soundtrack for it as well. What we know about Annette so far is that the subjects will be a stand-up comedian, his opera-singing wife, and a daughter who is said to be supernatural in some way. Pitchfork reports that Adam Driver is currently set to star in the film, while Rooney Mara and Rihanna have had to drop out due to other conflicting commitments. Because of this, the producers of the film are currently scouting for a new female lead for Annette.

Russell and Ron Mael of Sparks performing at 2013 Coachella in Indio, California on April 21, 2013.
Russell and Ron Mael of Sparks performing at Coachella in Indio, California on April 21, 2013. [Image by Jason Kempin/Getty Images]

It should be noted that Ron and Russell Mael do have past experience with providing soundtracks to films as Sparks scored the film Knock-Off and were also planning to compose the music for Jacques Tati’s Confusion. Tati is well-known for such classics as Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle, but passed away before Confusion was fully realized.

According to Criterion, Jacques Tati’s plan for the brothers Mael was to have the pair starring as American television executives who decide to visit France in an effort to try and make the local rural TV station slightly more modern. This project was originally discussed in 1974, and Russell Mael recalls that Tati was unaware of Sparks and their music when he first met Ron and Russell.

“We were discussing with a guy from Island Records in Europe fun things to do that weren’t involved with being in a rock band and how to just kind of expand the whole thing. Jacques Tati’s name was brought up and we just kind of laughed it off. Anyway, he approached Jacques Tati and somehow got him to come meet us. Jacques Tati didn’t know anything about Sparks because he was 67-years-old and doesn’t listen to rock music.”

This is set to be a fruitful year for Sparks as Russell and Ron Mael will be releasing their new album Hippopotamus this year and also just signed a new worldwide record deal with BMG in February.

Russell and Ron grew up in the sunny coastal region of the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles with their father doing graphic design work for the Hollywood Citizen-News, while their mother was a librarian. Before the advent of Sparks, the Mael brothers originally began their musical career in 1968 when they formed a band called Halfnelson.

After having their demo rejected by one too many record companies, they finally decided to send it to Todd Rundgren, who they felt would be more understanding and sympathetic of their music as he also had Anglophile tendencies. Rundgren took the pair in hand and put them on his Bearsville label, as The Los Angeles Times reported. In 1971, out of the ashes of Halfnelson came Sparks.

Despite the shows Sparks played early on, Ron Mael recalls that he and Russell always felt as if they didn’t quite fit in with the LA music scene of the 1970s.

“When we were playing the Whisky in the early ’70s, we were playing with bands like Little Feat and the Edgar Winter Band. We were definitely more in spiritual kinship with the Who and the Kinks, if only in our own minds. We always felt kind of different in Los Angeles. We were an L.A. band, but not part of the L.A. scene.”

Ron and Russell decided to take Sparks to England, a country whose music they felt more of a kinship with at the time. With Ron Mael seated behind his keyboard with a toothbrush mustache and an authoritarian air, and Russell Mael energetically dashing around on stage with long curls like Marc Bolan, singing in a falsetto voice, Sparks quickly became England’s favorite American band.

With Sparks creating singles like “Amateur Hour,” “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth,” “Hasta Manana Monsieur,” and “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us,” Russell and Ron developed a cult following. From The Ramones, Paul McCartney, Depeche Mode, Kurt Cobain and Morrissey, the names of the budding young musicians who they influenced and who later went on to form their own bands reads like a who’s who in the world of music.

The list of Sparks covers is also seemingly endless, from the Siouxsie and the Banshees 1987 version of “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” to Martin Gore’s version of “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” in 1989. Paul McCartney also found Sparks intriguing enough that in the video for his 1980 single “Coming Up,” he did an impersonation of Ron Mael.

Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks the Sony Radio Academy Awards in London on May 12, 2008.
Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks at the Sony Radio Academy Awards in London on May 12, 2008. [Image by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]

Fans of Sparks were nothing if not devout. Morrissey, for instance, was so smitten with the Sparks album Kimono My House, that at age 15 in 1974 he wrote to the NME praising Russell and Ron Mael’s efforts.

“Today I bought the album of the year. I feel I can say this without expecting several letters saying I’m talking rubbish. The album is Kimono My House by Sparks. I bought it on the strength of the single. Every track is brilliant, although I must name ‘Equator,’ ‘Complaints’, ‘Amateur Hour’ and ‘Here In Heaven’ as the best tracks and in that order. Steven Morrissey, 384 Kings Road, Stretford, Manchester.”

Ron and Russell have since become friends with Morrissey, with Russell saying that although their music is quite different, they nevertheless share the same musical spirit.

“We like him. There’s some kinship. Not so much musically, even, but in how you’re creating your own world with your music and especially lyrics.”

Morrissey was reportedly pleased after Sparks released a humorous song called “Lighten Up, Morrissey” in 2008, about a woman who is driving her boyfriend crazy with her Morrissey comparisons which he can never seem to live up to.

“She won’t dine out with me, no, she won’t dine out
Says my t-bone steak is at fault.
She won’t dine out with me, no, she won’t dine out
With a murderer, pass the salt.”

After spending so much time in England, Sparks felt that their music needed a new direction, and the brothers headed back to the United States and changed their music to more of a synthesizer format with their eighth album No. 1 in Heaven, which was produced by Giorgio Moroder in 1979. Ron and Russell Mael were fans of the Donna Summer song “I Feel Love,” and thought that Moroder would bring a fresh sound to Sparks. This record yielded songs like “Tryouts for the Human Race,” “La Dolce Vita,” and “The Number One Song in Heaven.”

In the 1980s, Sparks helped to create the visual imagery for films like Valley Girl with songs such as “Angst in My Pants,” and “Eaten By the Monster of Love.” They also put out a song called “Cool Places” with Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s, who was such a fan of Sparks herself that she even created her own fan club for them at one point.

The 1990s saw Russell and Ron Mael creating albums like Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins and if you fast forward to 2008, the Mael brothers released Exotic Creatures of the Deep, featuring the charmingly rousing “Good Morning.” That year also saw Sparks playing for 21 nights in London and performing a different album in its entirety on each night.

Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks at the 66th Annual Cannes Film Festival on May 19, 2013.
Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks at the 66th Annual Cannes Film Festival on May 19, 2013. [Image by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images]

The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman in 2009 was the last album that Sparks recorded, which is why fans are beside themselves with joy at the thought that 2017 will see Ron and Russell Mael release Hippopotamus, the 23rd album by Sparks as well as write and provide the soundtrack to Leos Carax’s new film Annette.

[Featured Image by Kevin Winter/Getty Images]

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