Pini Schatz is a documentary filmmaker from Israel, where he makes his home in Tel Aviv. Five years ago, Schatz decided to turn his lifelong obsession with the British American band Sparks into a documentary- not a film about the band, as much as about the devoted cult of fans who seem to live their life according to all things Sparks. After trips all over the world, collecting interviews with famous fans and even the Sparks brothers themselves, Schatz finished Never Turn Your Back On Sparks in 2014.
The 55 minute doc is a tight burst of energy, an ode to passionate Sparks fandom. I would say this could extend to all sorts of fandom, but being a Sparks fan is more akin to being a lover of other cult groups, like their long under-appreciated peers Big Star. Sparks are a strange band, and because of that they are not a band that ever managed to capture any type of Zeitgeist. Starting out in the early 1970’s, the band, led by brothers Russel and Ron Mael, blended elements of prog rock, orchestral pop, early new wave and art rock, and 45 years later with more than 15 studio albums to their credit, are still going strong. Despite plenty of overlap with other bands, no one else sounds like Sparks. It’s such a particular itch that must be scratched, that for fans of the band, only Sparks can truly offer relief to the itch.
Schatz wanted to do more than make a film about the Mael brothers. He wanted to explore the community of fellow devotees that has popped up around them over the years. I got to catch up with Schatz on a Sunday during the Passover holiday on Skype. We talked about how he nabbed interviews with famous singers/Sparks obsessives like Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys) and Joe Elliott (Def Leppard), the secretive nature of the Mael brothers, what all Sparks fans have in common, the right way to listen to Sparks, and much more.
Never Turn Your Back On Sparks has its US premiere as part of the Cinedelphia Film Festival on Thursday, April 27. Event details and tickets here.
A: Why did you decide to do a doc about Sparks fans and not Sparks themselves?
P: Because I knew they wouldn’t agree to be in the film from the start. I wanted to do something about them, but it turned out to be something unique; a film about the band without the band- for the fans. They saw my previous film and liked it, so they agreed to have it done. From the beginning they were opposed to participating- they didn’t explain why, but we all know they wanted to remain mysterious, so I guess that explains why.
A: I know you got to meet your heroes at a concert of theirs that you attended, but in the film you didn’t include any interview footage, opting instead for a photo with them. What was that like?
P: The photograph was the maximum they agreed to include. I met them (The Maels brothers) and they were very nice, and had a Skype chat with them for almost an hour, two weeks after meeting them. I met them again in New York, and [throughout production] got various stages of editing and cuts from me. They sent me some corrections, some complaints. Some things they didn’t agree with, but were left in the film. Some things I changed for them. So they were very involved in the film but they chose to remain removed, because with a long career they’ve had, nobody knows anything about their private lives. I suppose they didn’t want to slip and confess something.
A: So for the things they didn’t want you to include, how did you decide what to keep and what to cut?
P: Well, they were not specific about anything to cut, but just expressed some things they didn’t understand or didn’t like- I explained to them that some were just misunderstandings, but when they saw the final cut they really liked it. But still they wanted to remain distant- they asked me to not to publish anywhere that they liked it…but, they liked it.
A: Ha! A Cinedelphia exclusive. So since they were not producers of the film, you really weren’t obligated to give them any type of control over the film. What was your motivation in involving them in the process?
P: Well they didn’t have control- some changes they wanted I denied, saying that it was my film. But I understood it might disappoint them, but in the end it really didn’t change the atmosphere of the film. The film is about the fans, about the phenomena of the fans. It doesn’t even have to be about Sparks- it’s about any fan. Sparks is like a case study.
A: Like a case study of fandom.
P: Many times people say that fans can be blind, or not critical, and I wanted to show how a band of musicians can give inspiration to other artists to make art of their own- that’s why I was concentrating not just on cover bands, but on other fans who make art of their own. Making the film itself shows that being a fan can give you inspiration to improve your art- and not just be an imitator.
A: That shows in a lot of your artistic flourishes- such as the choices you make with editing, or the scene where you and an accompanying pianist leave an opera singer mid song to go have a drink and sing Sparks songs together. That was neat and obviously not what you see in a typical music documentary.
P: Right. I wanted to make a mixture of two genres- of personal documentary and rock documentary. I tried to be sarcastic about both genres- to twist them a bit. it’s laughing at the personal, and of course tries to be a rock documentary but is not the standard talking heads plus archive footage documentary. I wanted to make something else.
A: Is there something that Sparks fans have in common, aside from their love of Sparks?
P: I think because Sparks are so niche, and weird themselves- I have to say many of the fans including myself are eccentric as well. There’s an intellectual admiration- not like Justin Bieber fans or something like that.
A: The only thing I took issue with was in your interview with famous producer Tony Visconti, who said there was nothing very revolutionary about American music. What was your take on that?
P: Well he exaggerated of course. For example The Residents are American…there are many weird and eccentric American bands. But in the field of pure pop, mainstream, Sparks are the most eccentric. It’s not like Frank Zappa being avant garde- Sparks mix the avant garde with pure pop, so I imagine that’s what he’s talking about. If you’re comparing them to say, The Eagles, it’s easy to understand.
A: I was listening to Sparks and it’s unique and singular- it makes sense that a cult would rise up around them. If it gets you, and you get it, well that’s the only place you can go for that fix. So how does it feel to be showing this doc in America?
P: Finally. it took almost three years- thanks to Eric Bresler, it’s happening. All the other American festivals rejected it, which I cannot understand why. But it did have a successful screening in Barcelona and other places- with hundreds of people at each screening. I hope that not just fans, but people who like music in general will come. Many people who saw it in Sweden, Canada, Rome, Israel- hadn’t heard about Sparks, but their first reaction was to run home and listen to them on YouTube. I hope this film adds some fans.
A: For me I tried listening to them on my own, and even though I enjoyed it there was definitely something about it that I wasn’t getting. After watching this doc I definitely understand them better, and have more of a context in which to appreciate the music.
P: You know with Sparks, you cannot listen to them as background music. For instance I like Talking Heads a lot but you can listen to them while you’re doing something else. You can’t do that with Sparks. Every song is different and it’s not a carpet of music in the background.
A: That’s funny because I had them on while I was doing some work, and it was just a little too much.
P: They can even annoy you if you’re not concentrating on it.
A: What was it like meeting your heroes? Did it change your relationship with their music?
P: Well I knew in advance they would not be easy customers. They were very nice, smiling, I bought them presents and posters. I brought them posters designed by my late wife, who passed away during production of the film. I brought a bust of Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator to give to Ron, with the famous mustache, and for Russell I brought posters and postcards of French films I knew he loved. So this broke the ice. Another story is, when we were chatting on Skype for the first time, it was 2012 in November, and there were Hamas missiles landing in Tel Aviv during the talk. It was…amusing.
A: I guess what else is there to do but laugh at that? In the documentary you said you felt a little uncomfortable liking Sparks when you were young, because of his mustache, and living in Israel. Did anyone ever give you grief?
P: Some people, when I was 14, liked to say they were Nazis, but they’re Jewish, so…
A: Right, there have been bands that kind of play around with proto-fascist imagery, like Death In June or Kraftwerk, but there’s really no evidence to suggest they uphold anything resembling fascist viewpoints….
So through all of your research, what would you say is your favorite story about Sparks?
P: Hmmm…I really don’t know. First of all some of the stories I am not allowed to tell. I do know many things about their private lives from different sources, but we’re all sworn to be quiet about it. I’ve seen them so far five times already in concert and when I was in London, I felt like I realized that Ron is a genius, but Russell is a force of nature.
A: …Another favorite part was when you go to a Sparks memorabilia collector’s house in the Netherlands, seeing the collector with a big stack of the same record, but all different presses and editions. It just so perfectly captures very neurotic fandom, but I totally understood why. It even made me want to start another big collection…
P: All the participants saw the film and liked it, and one said she felt relieved that it was done in such a way, where they don’t look like idiots.