Ron Mael: 'The artificiality of a movie musical is something we feel really comfortable working within'
- James Mottram
- 21 August 2021
Ahead of Edinburgh International Film Festival screenings of Annette, Sparks siblings Ron and Russell Mael discuss how their filmmaking dreams finally became a reality
All good things come to those who wait, eventually. Ron and Russell Mael, the sibling duo behind evergreen pop-art outfit Sparks are now in their seventies and have been desperate to be in the movies for years. Stalled projects with Jacques Tati and Tim Burton came and went, as the band itself endured highs and lows of popularity. Then, nine years ago, they hit on the idea of Annette.
'We wanted to do another narrative project that was kind of different than just a normal Sparks album of discrete songs,' explains Russell. Back in 2009, they had presented The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman, a radio musical about the Swedish director's relocation to Hollywood. This time, the plan was to tour with songs they'd written for Annette. And then, at the Cannes Film Festival, they met Leos Carax. The French auteur had used the Sparks song 'How Are You Getting Home?' in his 2012 film Holy Motors. After the brothers were introduced to Carax, they decided to take a chance and send Annette to him. Within weeks, he'd signed on to turn it into a movie. 'And then it took eight years,' says Russell. 'We were back at Cannes for only the second time that we've ever been there, on the red carpet and having the opening night film.'
Following its curtain-raising for Cannes in July, Annette is now receiving its UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. It tells the tale of abrasive stand-up comic Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) who falls for an angelic opera singer, Ann Desfranoux (Marion Cotillard). With the pair forever in the public eye their relationship begins to sour, and Henry's jealous rages destroy any hope of happiness, despite Ann giving birth to a beautiful baby, Annette.
Given that the story deals with the corrosive nature of celebrity, did the brothers base it on their own 50-odd years of fame? 'A lot of times people ask about Sparks songs: are they autobiographical in a way? And we don't think so much that they are; it's more a case of coming up with these little stories,' replies Russell elusively, with older brother Ron explaining, 'we care less about the literal themes of it. What we care more about is the idea of a movie musical. It's something that really is exciting to us. The artificiality of a movie musical is something we feel really comfortable working within.'
The brothers, who grew up in California, were not exactly raised on musicals. 'Our father took us to a lot of films with violence, like westerns and war movies, where people were being shot,' remembers Ron. 'But we did see some film musicals. To be honest – at that time, at that age – I didn't like those kinds of films.' An ability to bring their own flavour to a genre they may not have always connected with probably accounts for why Annette feels so unique as a project, one that the brothers now wish to take on tour next year. 'It would be different [to the film],' says Russell. 'The visual side of it, which was so masterful from Leos … a lot of the scenes just look incredible. So it would obviously have to be a different approach. But we would like to do it.'
Annette, Filmhouse, Saturday 21 August, 6.15pm & 6.35pm; general release in cinemas from Friday 3 September.