Review: ‘Weird: The Al Yankovic Story,’ starring Daniel Radcliffe

November 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

Spencer Treat Clark, Tommy O’Brien, Daniel Radcliffe and Rainn Wilson in “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” (Photo courtesy of The Roku Channel)

“Weird: The Al Yankovic Story”

Directed by Eric Appel

Culture Representation: Taking place from the late 1960s to 1985, mostly in California, the comedy film “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Nerdy misfit Al Yankovic becomes world-famous for his parodies of pop music hits, but his fame, an inflated ego and an ill-fated romance with Madonna cause problems in his life. 

Culture Audience: “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” will appeal primarily to fans of “Weird Al” Yankovic, star Daniel Radcliffe and movies that spoof celebrity biopics.

Evan Rachel Wood and Daniel Radcliffe in “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” (Photo courtesy of The Roku Channel)

“Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” isn’t a straightforward biopic but it’s more like a biopic parody, which is fitting, considering the movie is about music parody king “Weird Al” Yankovic. Daniel Radcliffe fully commits to an off-the-wall performance as Yankovic. Some parts of the movie get distracted by trying to be too bizarre, but this well-cast movie overall can bring plenty of laughs. “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

Directed by Eric Appel (who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Yankovic), “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” even has a parody biopic voiceover, with Diedrich Bader as an unseen and unidentified narrator saying things in a deep voice and overly serious tone. The movie has the expected childhood flashbacks, which are moderately amusing. “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” doesn’t really pick up steam until it gets to depicting the adult Yankovic. (For the purposes of this review, the real Yankovic will be referred to by his last name, while the Al Yankovic character in the movie will be referred to as Al.)

“Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” begins in the mid-1980s, by showing the adult Al in his 20s (played by Radcliffe) being rushed into a hospital emergency room, where he is attended to by a doctor (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda). The voiceover narrator says solemnly: “Life is like a parody of your favorite song. Just when you think you know all the words … surprise! You don’t know anything.” Why is Al in a hospital emergency room? The movie circles back to this scene later, to explain why.

After this scene in the hospital emergency room, the movie flashes back to Al’s childhood with Al (played by Richard Aaron Anderson), at about 9 or 10 years old, who considered himself to be a misfit in his own household. Born in 1959, Al grew up as an only child in the Los Angeles suburb of Lynwood, California. Al’s cranky father Nick (played by Toby Huss) works in a factory, and he expects Al to also become a factory worker when Al is an adult. Al’s loving mother Mary (played by Julianne Nicholson) is somewhat supportive of Al’s artistic interests, but she lives in fear of Nick, who has a nasty temper.

Nick openly mocks Al’s dreams to be a songwriter. One day during a meal at the family’s dining room table, Al’s parents listen to Al change the words of the gospel hymn “Amazing Grace” to “Amazing Grapes.” Nick is infuriated and says that this song parody is “blasphemy.” Mary tells Al that he should stop being himself. Feeling misunderstood, Al takes comfort in listening to his favorite radio shows, including those by his idol Dr. Demento.

Something happens that changes the course of Al’s life: An accordion salesman (played by Thomas Lennon) comes knocking on the Yankovic family’s door. Nick isn’t home at the time, but Al and Mary are there. Al is immediately dazzled by the accordion for sale, which is actually not shiny and new, but rather previously owned and worn-out. Al feels an instant connection to the music that comes out of this unusual instrument.

Al begs his mother to buy the accordion for him. Mary usually goes along with whatever Nick wants. (Nick wants Al to give up any dreams of being a musician.) But this time, Mary goes against what her husband wishes, and she secretly buys the accordion for Al. However, Mary has a condition for buying this accordion: Al must hide the accordion and only play the accordion when Nick isn’t there. Al agrees to this rule and becomes a skilled accordion player.

As a teenager, Al (played by David Bloom) is considered nerdy but likeable. His outlook on life begins to change when he plays the accordion at a house party full of kids from his high school. The response he gets is enthusiastic and full of praise. It’s the first time that Al feels outside validation for his accordion playing, and it gives him the confidence to decide that he will definitely be a musician and songwriter. Things turn sour at home though, when Nick finds out about the accordion and destroys it in a fit of anger.

After graduating from high school, Al moves to Los Angeles, where he lives with three guys who are close to his age: Jim (played by Jack Lancaster), Steve (played by Spencer Treat Clark) and Bermuda (played by Tommy O’Brien), whose interests are mainly dating women and partying. Al’s roommates encourage him to pursue his dreams, even though Al is constantly being rejected when he auditions for rock bands that have no interest in having an accordion player. (The movie has some comedic montages of these rejections.)

Al’s roommates aren’t fully aware of his talent for parodies until Al does an impromptu parody of The Knack’s 1979 hit “My Sharona” and turns it into his parody song “My Balogna” when he looks at some bologna in the kitchen. The roommates are so impressed that they volunteer to be his band members and encourage Al to make a recording demo that he can send to record companies, with the hope that he can get a record deal.

Al’s demo tape finds its way to brothers Tony Scotti (played by the real Yankovic) and Ben Scotti (played by Will Forte), who own Scotti Bros. Records. Tony and younger brother Ben (who are portrayed as shallow and mean-spirited music executives) are very dismissive of Al at first and don’t think a song like “My Balogna” could be a hit. Even though “My Balogna” has been getting some local radio airplay (including be a big hit on Southern California radio’s “The Captain Buffoon Show”), Tony and his “yes man” brother Ben don’t think there’s demand on a national level for albums from an accordion-playing, parody singer/songwriter.

But then, Al meets his idol Doctor Demento (played by Rainn Wilson, in perfect casting), who thinks Al is very talented and offers to become Al’s mentor. Dr. Demento suggests that Al change his stage name to “Weird Al” Yankovic. Al gets live performance gigs, sometimes as the opening act for Dr. Demento in the early 1980s.

Al also does a recording called “I Love Rocky Road” (referring to Rocky Road ice cream), a parody of “I Love Rock’n’Roll,” a song originally recorded by The Arrows in 1976, and was made into a chart-topping hit by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts in 1981. “I Love Rocky Road” gets some airplay on local radio (including Dr. Demento’s show), and it becomes a popular song requested by audiences. Suddenly, the Scotti Brothers are interested in signing Al to their record label.

One of the best scenes in the movie is early in Al’s career, before he was famous, when he’s invited to a house party at Dr. Demento’s place. The party guests are a “who’s who” of eccentric celebrities, including Andy Warhol (played by Conan O’Brien), Alice Cooper (played by Akiva Schaffer), Salvador Dalí (played by Emo Phillips), Divine (played by Nina West), Tiny Tim (played by Demetri Martin), Gallagher (played by Paul F. Tompkins) and Pee Wee Herman (played by Jorma Taccone). Observant viewers will also notice uncredited actors portraying Elvira, Frank Zappa and Grace Jones at the party.

At this party, radio/TV personality Wolfman Jack (played by Jack Black, in a hilarious cameo) is skeptical of Al’s talent, and he tries to humiliate Al, by challenging Al to do an impromptu parody of Queen’s 1980 hit “Another One Bites the Dust.” Queen bassist John Deacon (played by David Dastmalchian), who wrote “Another One Bites the Dust,” is also at the party and wants to see how this aspiring artist will rework one of Queen’s biggest hits. Al rises to the challenge and comes up with the parody “Another One Rides the Bus,” which tells comedic tale about the frustrations of riding a bus. Al the earns the respect of Wolfman Jack, Deacon and other skeptics at the party. Other well-known comedians who make cameos in the movie include Quinta Brunson as Oprah Winfrey, Patton Oswalt as an unnamed heckler, Michael McKean as a nightclub emcee, Arturo Castro as Pablo Escobar and Seth Green as a radio DJ.

The rest of “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” is a wild and wacky ride that shows Al’s ascent in the music business, but he succumbs to some of the pitfalls of fame. “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” adds a lot of fiction about Yankovic’s life when the movie starts going into its more unusual tangents. For example, in real life, Yankovic had one of his biggest hits in 1984 with “Eat It,” a parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” But the movie puts a cheeky and offbeat twist on this part of Yankovic’s personal history, by making Al as the one to write the song first, and Michael Jackson “copied” the song by recording “Beat It,” without giving Al any songwriting credit.

Al’s dysfunctional romance with Madonna (played by Evan Rachel Wood) is also fabricated for the movie. (In real life, Yankovic says that he and Madonna never knew each other at all.) In the movie, Madonna and Al first meet sometime in 1983, when he’s a bigger star than she is, because she recently signed a deal to release her first album. Madonna is portrayed as an ambitious manipulator who had her sights set on Al after she found out that sales increase significantly for artists whose songs are parodied by Al.

Madonna and Al immediately begin a hot-and-heavy affair based mostly on lust. Madonna encourages Al to start abusing alcohol and acting like a difficult rock star. Al starts to alienate his bandmates/friends when he does things like show up late for rehearsals and act like an insufferable egomaniac. Madonna knows it’s easier to manipulate Al when he’s drunk, so she keeps him supplied with enough alcoholic drinks to keep him intoxicated.

It’s all part of Madonna’s plan to get Al to do a parody of one of her songs, so that her music sales can increase. (ln real life, Yankovic’s 1986 song “Like a Surgeon” was a parody of Madonna’s 1984 hit “Like a Virgin.”) But what Madonna, the Scotti Brothers and many other people didn’t expect was Al deciding that he was going to stop doing parodies and release an album of his own original songs. Al makes this decision after he accidentally takes LSD given to him by Dr. Demento, and Al has an epiphany that he has more to say to the world as a writer of his own original songs.

The movie has several moments that parody how superficial the entertainment industry can be, with the Madonna character being an obvious example of a showbiz leech. The Scotti Brothers characters are the epitome of greedy and fickle music executives who think they always know more than the artists signed to their record label. Al is portrayed as someone who enjoys his fame but also feels overwhelmed by it.

Even when with his fame and fortune, Al still craves the approval of his parents, who don’t really express that they are proud of him. At the height of Al’s success, he remained somewhat estranged from his parents. It’s a bittersweet part of the story that gives some emotional gravitas to this otherwise intentionally zany movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s a scene in the movie where Al, who has won Grammys and is a headliner of sold-out arena shows, calls his mother Mary to tell her about some of his accomplishments, but her response is the equivalent of someone saying, “That’s nice, dear,” and not being very interested.

Radcliffe (who is much shorter in height than the real Yankovic) makes up for not having a physical resemblance to Yankovic by bringing his own character interpretation of the real person. It’s not an impersonation but more like a re-imagining of what Yankovic is in this often-fabricated cinematic version of his life. Wood also turns in a memorable performance as Madonna, which might remind people more of Madonna’s chewing-gum-smacking movie character Susan from 1985’s “Desperately Seeking Susan” than the real Madonna.

“Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” doesn’t disappoint when it comes to the music. The movie has some entertaining concert scenes and gives some insight into Yankovic’s songwriting and recording experiences. If the movie has any flaws, it’s the Madonna storyline, which becomes a one-note joke and drags on for a little too long. And because the movie ends in 1985, it doesn’t include Yankovic’s post-1985 forays into starring in movies and TV shows, directing music videos for other artists, and becoming a children’s book author. However, the movie cheats a little in the timeline, because it includes Yankovic’s 1996 song “Amish Paradise,” which is a parody of Coolio’s 1995 hit “Gangsta’s Paradise.”

The last scene of “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” might be a little too abrupt or off-putting for some viewers. But it’s an example of how this movie doesn’t want to be a conventional biopic. Yankovic’s original song “Now You Know,” which was recorded for the movie and plays during the end credits, makes a lot of meta references to the movie that are an example of this comedy film’s quirky tone. Even with all the oddball antics in the movie, “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” succeeds in its message that good things can happen to people who aren’t afraid to be themselves.

The Roku Channel will premiere “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” on November 4, 2022.

Review: ‘I Love My Dad,’ starring Patton Oswalt, James Morosini, Claudia Sulewski, Amy Landecker, Lil Rel Howery and Rachel Dratch

March 16, 2022

by Carla Hay

James Morosini and Patton Oswalt in “I Love My Dad” (Photo courtesy of I Love My Dad LLC/Hantz Motion Pictures)

“I Love My Dad”

Directed by James Morosini

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city and in Augusta, Maine, the comedy film “I Love My Dad” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A divorced father, who is a pathological liar, tries to reconnect with his estranged, young adult son by creating a fake online profile where the father impersonates a woman who pretends to be romantically interested in the son.

Culture Audience: “I Love My Dad” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in quirky comedies that have incisive social commentary on “catfishing” (creating a fake online persona to deceive people) and dysfunctional family relationships.

James Morosini and Patton Oswalt in “I Love My Dad” (Photo courtesy of I Love My Dad LLC/Hantz Motion Pictures)

Inspired by a true story, “I Love My Dad” is the type of comedy that adeptly turns its most cringeworthy moments into its funniest moments. It’s not an easy challenge, considering that it’s a movie that will make many viewers uncomfortable. “I Love My Dad” has a double meaning, because it’s about a divorced father who pretends to be an attractive young woman online, so that he can lure his estranged son into an online emotional relationship. It’s all because this disturbed father is so desperate to reconnect with his son, he’s concocted this elaborate ruse, even if he knows it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

It’s the type of warped story that people might think could only be fabricated for a movie. However, it happened in real life to “I Love My Dad” writer/director James Morosini, who also stars as the hapless and beleaguered son in this movie. “I Love My Dad” had its world premiere at the 2022 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival, where it won the event’s top grand jury prize: Best Narrative Feature. As messy as the movie’s subject is, it’s also a wild and entertaining ride that’s made all the more poignant because it’s a deeply personal story.

“I Love My Dad” opens with a flashback scene of Chuck Green (played by Patton Oswalt) and his son Franklin Green (played by Seamus Callahan), who’s about 8 or 9 years old, taking home a stray black Labrador retriever that they found on the street. Eager to please his son, Chuck tells Franklin (who has no siblings) that they can keep the dog, which is male. Franklin asks, “What if he’s lost?” Chuck just shrugs.

As Chuck and Franklin walk home together with the dog, Chuck sees a “missing dog” flyer posted on a telephone pole. The dog in the flyer’s photo is the same dog that Chuck has taken, and the owner wants to find the dog. Out of Franklin’s sight and without any guilt, Chuck tears the flyer off the pole because he wants to keep the dog. It’s an indication of Chuck’s personality: impulsive, wanting immediate gratification, and very selfish.

The movie then fast-forwards to showing Franklin in his early 20s. His parents have been divorced for years, and Franklin is in therapy for anxiety and depression—mostly because his irresponsible and unreliable father Chuck has caused a lot of emotional damage to Franklin. Chuck is a chronic liar whose dishonesty was the main cause for the divorce.

Franklin is a misfit loner who lives with his mother Diane (played by Amy Landecker), who is very protective and concerned about Franklin’s mental health. Franklin is currently unemployed, but his dream job is to be a computer coder for a video game company. He spends a lot of time playing video games. The movie doesn’t mention where Franklin and Diane live, but it’s thousands of miles away from Chuck. Diane has not been in regular contact with Chuck for a long time—and she wants it to stay that way.

Meanwhile, Chuck (who lives in Augusta, Maine) is despondent because Franklin, whom he has not spoken to in about a year, has recently blocked Chuck from all of Franklin’s social media. Chuck is sulking about it at his office job (the movie never mentions what Chuck does for a living), and his mopey attitude is noticed by a co-worker named Jimmy (played by Lil Rel Howery). Jimmy asks Chuck why he looks so sad, and Chuck tells him about Franklin’s online snubbing.

Jimmy mentions to Chuck that when he was blocked online by an ex-girlfriend, all he had to do to continue following her on social media was to create a phony online persona and get on her online “friends” list again. Jimmy brags that the trick worked, and he was able to keep tabs on what this ex-girlfriend was doing. It’s an idea that Chuck takes to extremes.

Shortly after getting cut off from Franklin, Chuck goes to eat by himself at a local diner called Carl’s Kountry Kitchen. (“I Love My Dad” was filmed in New York state, and the movie includes the real Carl’s Kountry Kitchen, which is in Syracuse, New York.) Chuck’s server is a friendly woman in her early 20s named Becca (played by Claudia Sulewski), who has a “girl next door” attractiveness about her.

When Chuck goes home, he looks up Becca on the Internet and finds all of her social media. And that’s when he gets the idea to pretend to be Becca and contact Franklin. Chuck steals Becca’s identity and many of her online photos to create fake online profiles of her. When Franklin accepts the fake Becca’s friend requests, Franklin asks her during a chat why he’s the only person she’s following.

As the fake Becca, Chuck quickly comes up with an excuse that “Becca” has new accounts because she deleted her previous accounts when she took a break from social media. Franklin believes this excuse. Over time, Franklin and “Becca” get closer, as they open up to each other about their emotions and family problems. And it should come as no surprise that Franklin ends up falling for “Becca,” as Chuck gets more caught up in this elaborate and twisted masquerade.

Chuck is ecstatic that Franklin is talking to Chuck again, even though it’s all based on Chuck’s concocted lies. Chuck confides in his co-worker Jimmy about the fake online persona. Jimmy warns Chuck not to continue this deception because Franklin might permanently cut Chuck out of Franklin’s life if Franklin finds out the truth. Chuck ignores this advice because he’s self-centered and has become accustomed to lying to get what he wants.

One of the funniest aspects of “I Love My Dad” is how it shows Becca appearing to exist in person with Franklin when he’s chatting with her online or having fantasies about her. But then, the camera suddenly switches to the reality that Chuck is talking to Franklin, so Chuck is shown doing the things with Franklin that Franklin is simultaneously imagining that Becca is doing with Franklin. This switch of perspectives is cleverly edited to bring many laugh-out-loud moments for people watching the movie. Chuck has fantasies too, where he places himself in moments where he wants to emotionally bond with Franklin.

Franklin knows that “Becca” doesn’t live near him, but he eventually wants some kind of contact with her beyond words and photos on a screen. When he tries to set up an online video chat, “Becca” comes up with the excuse that her computer’s video camera is broken. Whenever Franklin becomes skeptical of “Becca” being real, Chuck thinks of something to continue the ruse.

At one point, Franklin insists on talking to “Becca” on the phone. And so, Chuck averts Franklin’s suspicions that “Becca” is a fake persona when Chuck enlists a neurotic co-worker whom he’s been dating named Erica (played by Rachel Dratch) to impersonate “Becca” over the phone. Erica is infatuated with Chuck, but she’s very reluctant to be a part of this deceit. Chuck lies to Erica by saying that it’s a prank that he and Franklin play on each other as a father-son tradition. Erica participates in this con only after she gets Chuck to agree to have sex with her at their office.

Of course, there’s a sexual component that becomes a part of Franklin’s online “romance” with “Becca.” It’s a part of the deception that makes Chuck the most squeamish and feeling very guilty about what he’s doing. But that doesn’t stop dishonest Chuck from making Erica an unwitting accomplice during a hilarious scene involving online sex talk.

To be clear: “I Love My Dad” does not condone incest or sexual abuse. Rather, it shows in amusing and unsettling ways how pathetic online liars can be with their con games. The people who know Chuck’s secret (his co-workers Jimmy and Erica) express their disapproval to Chuck, but Chuck is the type of person who will do what he wants, no matter what other people say about it being wrong. The movie makes it obvious that as much as Chuck thinks he’s too smart to get caught, he’s really the one who’s degrading himself the most.

“I Love My Dad” has some hilarious twists and turns as Chuck’s lies get bigger, and he goes to greater lengths to prevent his lies from being exposed. This movie works so well as a comedy, mainly because the story doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s really a “truth is stranger than fiction” movie that seems so absurd, it might as well be a comedy. Morosini admirably channels what must have been a very painful time in his life into a story that can not only entertain people but also provoke thoughtful discussions about healing from family dysfunction, deciding what to forgive, and choosing which family members to have in one’s life.

The lead performances by Morosini and Oswalt make this movie’s engine run with a crackling energy of two characters who are at odds with each other but also weirdly co-dependent on each other for emotional validation. Some viewers might not care for how “I Love My Dad” ends, while other viewers will love the movie’s ending. Either way, the intended message of “I Love My Dad” is that there’s sometimes no way to predict what people will do to be close to the ones they love.

UPDATE: Magnolia Pictures will release “I Love My Dad” in select U.S. cinemas on August 5, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on August 12, 2022.

Review: ‘The Sparks Brothers,’ starring Ron Mael and Russell Mael

July 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Russell Mael and Ron Mael in “The Sparks Brothers” (Photo by Anna Webber / Focus Features)

“The Sparks Brothers”

Directed by Edgar Wright

Culture Representation: The documentary film “The Sparks Brothers” features a nearly all-white group of people (and one African American) discussing the career and influence of the American experimental rock/pop duo Sparks, including Sparks members Russell Mael and Ron Mael.

Culture Clash: The highs and lows of Sparks’ career included the Mael brothers’ sibling rivalry; relocating to England during a pivotal time in the duo’s career; parting ways with filmmaker Tim Burton on a movie musical that was supposed to be a big comeback for Sparks; and dealing with the fickle nature of the music business.

Culture Audience: Aside from die-hard fans of Sparks, “The Sparks Brothers” will appeal mostly to people who are nostalgic or curious about influential pop/rock musicians who never became superstars.

Russell Mael and Ron Mael in “The Sparks Brothers” (Photo by Jake Polonsky/Focus Features)

“The Sparks Brothers” documentary director Edgar Wright makes it abundantly clear that he’s a massive fan of the pop/rock duo Sparks, so this film is more of a tribute than a well-rounded biography. At 140 minutes long, “The Sparks Brothers” can be an endurance test for people who aren’t die-hard Sparks enthusiasts. And since the documentary only interviews people who are either fans of Sparks or have worked with Sparks, the non-stop praise for Sparks can be a bit repetitive. However, the documentary is a fascinating look at the longevity of Sparks and the brotherly dynamics of Sparks members Ron and Russell Mael.

“The Sparks Brothers,” whose exclusive interview footage was filmed in black and white, is a documentary that makes some attempt to not completely follow the typical film biography format of mixing archival footage with new footage that was filmed exclusively for the documentary. Sparks is known as an experimental and offbeat act that never hit superstar mainstream status. And so, there are moments in the film that are nods to the quirky image of Sparks.

For example, director Wright can sometimes be heard talking to the Mael brothers off-camera in a cheeky manner to make a joke or set up a sight gag. When he asks the Ron and Russell why they decided to do an authorized documentary at this time in their lives, older brother Ron says, “We didn’t want to do a standard documentary full of talking heads.” Russell adds, “It would become too dry.” And then two buckets of water are thrown on the brothers.

It’s a facetious moment, because this documentary is actually full of talking heads—so much so that numerous people’s comments about Sparks take up at least 40% of the movie. Some of the best moments of the documentary, which tells the Sparks story in chronological order, is near the beginning, when it reveals photos and details about the early years of Ron and Russell being musicians.

Ron (who was born in 1945 in Santa Monica, California) and Russell Mael (who was born in 1948 in Culver City, California) are the only children of Meyer and Miriam Mael. Meyer was a commercial painter, graphic designer and caricaturist, who tragically died when Ron was 11 and Russell was 8. Miriam was a librarian. Ron and Russell were raised primarily in Pacific Palisades (an affluent suburb of Los Angeles), and the brothers performed in talent shows when they were school children.

Ron says that these talent shows were the first experiences that he and Russell had in getting a taste of the “addicting” thrill of affecting an audience. People unfamiliar with the Mael brothers’ teen years might be surprised to find out from this documentary that Russell (who’s known for his thin physique) was the quarterback of his high school football team. Russell says that he got the same adrenaline rush from playing in football games that he later got when he performed on stage as an entertainer. The Mael brothers say that the 1955 dramatic film “Blackboard Jungle” was a huge influence on them as children.

Ron and Russell attended the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where they started to play in rock bands that never really went anywhere beyond the local music scene. Two of those bands were Moonbaker Abbey and the Urban Renewal Projects. The Mael brothers say they first started getting serious about music when they began working with Earle Mankey, a founding member of Halfnelson, the band whose name was later changed to Sparks. Sparks’ 1971 eponymous debut album was originally titled “Halfnelson.” Mankey is one of the people interviewed in the documentary.

At UCLA, Ron and Russell both studied film, which would influence the types of music videos that they made and their tendency to sometimes reinvent themselves with various images and costumes. But throughout their career, one image of the band remained true and constant: Russell as the extroverted lead singer (who was also a heartthrob in Sparks’ heyday) and Ron as the introverted keyboardist/songwriter/producer.

It’s repeated several times in the documentary that Ron had private struggles with being overshadowed by Russell, even though Ron was the one creating the band’s songs. It’s a common situation with musical duos and groups, because the lead singer is usually the one who gets most of the attention. But adding in sibling rivalry makes it a more emotionally complicated issue. Someone can stop working with a sibling, but that sibling will still be a family member.

Russell describes the early years of developing his stage persona as trying to emulate Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger and The Who lead singer Roger Daltrey. “I was off by a few thousand miles,” he quips. The Mael brothers say other musical influences on Sparks were French New Wave bands. Given the brothers’ background in studying film, it’s not surprising that French New Wave in music and film had an effect on them, because there’s a very European style to the Mael brothers’ art.

Becoming a superstar act was never Sparks’ goal, but this documentary makes it clear that Ron and Russell Mael have wanted enough commercial success to be famous and to be wealthy enough to able to self-fund their projects in case no companies or investors were interested. There’s no question that Sparks has a very devoted fan base, but this documentary wants to bestow “legendary” status on Sparks. It’s a description that gives the movie a very fan-worship tone that exaggerates how far Sparks’ influence really went, compared to other non-mainstream arists who influenced a wider variety of people.

“The Sparks Brothers” documentary gives a comprehensive overview of the Sparks album discography, up until 2020, when the movie was completed. There’s a mention at the end of the film about the 2021 movie musical “Annette” (directed by Leos Carax), which features original music by Sparks, as well as the Mael brothers in supporting roles as actors. “Annette” (which stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard) is set for release by Amazon Studios in August 2021, thereby making it the second movie of 2021 (after “The Sparks Brothers”) to feature Ron and Russell Mael. “The Sparks Brothers” world premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and the world premiere of “Annette” is at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival,

“Annette” is the culmination of years of the Mael brothers’ dream to do a movie musical. “The Sparks Brothers” documentary includes their version of what happened when they parted ways with director Tim Burton on a movie musical called “Mai, the Psychic Girl,” based on the 1985-1986 manga series written by Kazuya Kudō and illustrated by Ryoichi Ikegami. The Mael brothers worked on the movie during a time (the late 1980s to early 1990s) when the duo’s career was in a slump, and they say they needed a hit project to keep them financially afloat.

Although the Mael brothers don’t give too many details on what led to Burton’s departure from the project, they make it clear that Burton was the one who walked away, and the Mael brothers were heartbroken over it. (According to numerous reports, Burton chose to instead work with Disney for 1993’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and 1994’s “Ed Wood.”) The Mael brothers invested several years and most of their personal fortune into the “Mai, the Psychic Girl” movie. And once Burton was no longer involved in making the movie, all the other investors backed out. The rights to make the movie eventually went to other people, but so far, attempts to make “Mai, the Psychic Girl” into a movie have not come to fruition.

Another crossroad in Sparks’ career that’s discussed in the documentary is when the Mael brothers decided to relocate to England in 1973, after growing frustrated by their lack of commercial success in the United States. They fired their American band mates to start over in a completely new country. It was in England that Sparks began to blossom artistically and found a bigger fan base than ever before. Sparks’ popularity eventually spread all over Europe (mainly in Western Europe), where Sparks had their biggest hits. The Mael Brothers moved back to the Los Angeles area in 1976.

Although Sparks has plenty of fans in other continents, Europe is where Sparks has been glorified the most. Sparks became so associated with England in the 1970s, that many fans who discovered them back then incorrectly assumed that the Mael brothers were natives of England. Sparks’ biggest string of hit songs were in the 1980s, including 1983’s “Cool Places,” from the album “In Outer Space”; 1986’s “Music You Can Dance To,” the title track of Sparks’ 1985 album; and 1989’s “Just Got Back From Heaven,” from the 1988 album “Interior Design.”

“The Sparks Brothers” documentary has plenty to say about the Mael brothers’ music, but very little to say about their personal lives, except for Russell mentioning that he was quite a playboy when he was young. The Go-Go’s co-founder/rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlin, who’s interviewed in the documentary, says she dated Russell in the early 1980s, but their brief romance was more one-sided on her part. And in the early 1970s, Russell used to date a well-known groupie named Miss Christine, who was part of a short-lived all-female singing group called the GTO’s, whose first and only album was produced by Frank Zappa. Pamela Des Barres, a member of the GTO’s, is interviewed in “The Sparks Brothers” documentary.

There’s no mention if Ron or Russell ever married or if they have children—something they’ve refused to publicly talk about for years. However, it’s clear that even through their ups and downs, the brothers have remained close. The documentary shows that Ron and Russell have a routine of going to their favorite cafe in the Los Angeles area before going back to their home studio to work.

There’s some footage of the brothers creating music in their home studio. The documentary needed more of that type of behind-the-scenes footage and less talking heads giving Sparks testimonials. It’s fair to say that this documentary is overstuffed with people talking about Sparks and doesn’t show enough current footage of what the lives of the Mael brothers are like. The archival footage is good enough, but avid Sparks fans have probably seen a lot of it already.

A constant theme in “The Sparks Brothers” documentary is that Sparks has been very underrated in how much Sparks has influenced musicians in pop and rock music. What the movie ignores—although it’s pretty obvious when you see who’s interviewed in the documentary—is that when fans and other admirers talk about Sparks’ influence, they’re really talking about influence on mainly white people. Pop music nowadays is a lot more diverse than it was in the 20th century, so if Sparks really had as wide of an influence range as this movie claims, then there would be more diversity in the people being interviewed, not just in terms of race but also nationality and age.

With the exception of Icelandic singer Björk (who is not interviewed on camera), the people interviewed in the documentary are British and American people who were born before 1985. They include musicians such as Beck; Duran Duran co-founders John Taylor and Nick Rhodes; Franz Ferdinand lead singer Alex Kapranos; Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea; Todd Rundgren; Faith No More keyboardist Roddy Bottum; Jack Antonoff; Bernard Butler; Erasure members Vince Clarke and Andy Bell; “Weird Al” Yankovic; former Visage drummer Rusty Egan; Electric Prunes singer James Lowe; former Haircut 100 singer Nick Heyward; Martyn Ware, co-founder of pop groups Human League and Heaven 17; DJ Lance Rock; New Order members Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert; and former Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones.

Past and present Sparks associates interviewed include former Sparks drummer Tammy Glover; former Halfnelson tour manager/photographer Larry Dupont, former Halfnelson manager Mike Berns; former Halfnelson/Sparks drummer Harley Feinstein; former Sparks drummer Hilly Michaels; former Sparks manager John Hewlett; former Sparks road Richard Coble; former Sparks drummer Christi Haydon; former Sparks bassist Ian Hampton; former Sparks drummer David Kendrick; former Sparks guitarist Dean Menta; Sparks manager Sue Harris; and Sparks drummer Stevie Nistor.

And several people known for their work in movies, television or stand-up comedy weigh in with their thoughts. They include “The Sparks Brothers” director Wright; actor Mike Myers; actor Jason Schwartzman; actor/comedian Patton Oswalt; TV producers/writers/spouses Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino; actor/comedian Jake Fogelnest; actor/screenwriter Mark Gatiss; comedian April Richardson; actor/comedian Scott Aukerman; and comedian/TV host Jonathan Ross, who jokes that Ron and Russell Mael “don’t really look like a band. They look [institutionalized] people who’ve been let out for a day.”

Media people interviewed include broadcaster/columnist Katie Puck; journalist David Weigel; radio host Michael Silverblatt; and poet Josh Berman. Other admirers who have soundbites in the film are Sparks superfans Madeline Bocchiaro (president of the Sparks Fan Club), Julia Marcus, Vera Hegarty and Ben House. And behind-the-scenes music industry people interviewed include producer Tony Visconti and former Island Records A&R executive Muff Winwood.

If you’re exhausted or annoyed just by reading this list of names people interviewed for this documentary, that’s kind of like how it feels to watch this too-large number of people chiming in with their soundbites about Sparks and sometimes interrupting the flow of the movie. “The Sparks Brothers” director Wright clearly wanted to show as many people as possible who profess their adoration of Sparks, but the “less is more” approach would’ve served this movie better. And it certainly would’ve lessened the movie’s overly long run time.

“The Sparks Brothers” also has a bit of a pretentious tone in how it tries to make it look like people who aren’t fans of Sparks must have something wrong with them. Quite frankly, as talented as Ron and Russell Mael are, their music will never be a lot of people’s cup of tea. In fact, what this movie could’ve used is at least some perspective from people who are music experts but aren’t worshipful fans of Sparks and were never on the Sparks payroll. It would go a long way to explain why Sparks never caught on with a massive, worldwide audience.

Despite the overabundance of fawning over Sparks in this documentary, anyone who appreciates unique artists in music can find something to like about “The Sparks Brothers.” The movie also succeeds in presenting Ron and Russell Mael in their most candid on-camera interview spotlight. And the joy that Sparks has brought to so many people is obvious, so it’s a delight to watch in this movie.

Focus Features released “The Sparks Brothers” in select U.S. cinemas on June 18, 2021.

Review: ‘Dads,’ starring Ron Howard, Will Smith, Conan O’Brien, Ken Jeong, Jimmy Fallon, Neil Patrick Harris and Jimmy Kimmel

June 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

Bryce Dallas Howard and her father Ron Howard in “Dads” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

“Dads” 

Directed by Bryce Dallas Howard

Culture Representation: The documentary “Dads” has a racially diverse group of people (white, black, Asian and Latino) representing the middle-class and wealthy and talking about fatherhood.

Culture Clash: Some of the fathers interviewed in the film talk about defying traditional masculine stereotypes, by being more involved in raising their children than previous generations of fathers were expected to be.

Culture Audience: “Dads” will appeal to anyone who likes nonfiction films about parenting issues, even though it shuts out any perspectives of fathers who are poor or have negative attitudes about being fathers.

Robert Selby (pictured at right) and his son RJ in “Dads” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

The documentary “Dads” puts such an unrelenting positive and happy spin on fatherhood that it has a strange dichotomy of being a nonfiction film that isn’t entirely realistic. Bryce Dallas Howard (the eldest child of Oscar-winning filmmaker Ron Howard) makes her feature-film directorial debut with “Dads,” which devotes considerable screen time to members of the Howard family talking about fatherhood. “Dads” is ultimately a very uplifting “feel good” movie, but it doesn’t do anything groundbreaking or reveal any new concepts of fatherhood.

There are no deadbeat dads or bitter fathers who’ve lost child custody in “Dads.” Instead, the documentary focuses only on fathers who love being dads and have good relationships with their children. There are several celebrities interviewed in the film (all of whom have a background in comedy), such as Judd Apatow, Jimmy Fallon, Neil Patrick Harris, Ron Howard, Ken Jeong, Jimmy Kimmel, Hasan Minhaj, Conan O’Brien, Patton Oswalt and Will Smith.

“Dads” has three kinds of footage: soundbites from the celebrities, with Bryce Dallas Howard as the interviewer (she sometimes appears on camera); clips of home movies (the clips from random, unidentified people give the documentary an “America’s Funniest Home Videos” look); and six in-depth profiles of seven middle-class fathers from different parts of the world.

Although the celebrities offer some amusing anecdotes, many of their stories seem rehearsed or their comments are made just to crack a joke. Smith, in particular, seems to have memorized way in advance what he was going to say in this documentary. With the exception of Ron Howard, the celebrities are not shown with their children in this documentary, which is why the celebrity segments in the film are pretty superficial. The best parts of the documentary are with the people who aren’t rich and famous, because that’s the footage that actually shows “regular” fathers (who don’t have nannies) taking care of the kids.

The seven non-famous fathers who are profiled in the movie are:

  • Glen Henry (in San Diego), an African American who became a “daddy vlogger” to document his experiences as a stay-at-home dad.
  • Reed Howard (in Westchester, New York), who is Bryce Dallas Howard’s youngest sibling and was a first-time expectant father at the time the documentary was filmed.
  • Robert Selby (in Triangle, Virginia), an African American whose son survived a life-or-death medical crisis.
  • Thiago Queiroz (in Rio de Janeiro), a Brazilian who started a podcast and blog about fatherhood and who advocates for longer time for paternity leaves.
  • Shuichi Sakuma (in Tokyo), who is a Japanese homemaker.
  • Rob Scheer and Reece Scheer (in Darnestown, Maryland), a white gay couple who adopted four African American kids.

Glen Henry used to work as a sales clerk at men’s clothing store, but he was so unhappy in his job that his wife Yvette suggested that he quit his job and become a stay-at-home father. (At the time “Dads” was filmed, the Henrys had two sons and a daughter.) Glen Henry, who has a blog called Beleaf in Fatherhood, began making videos documenting his fatherhood experiences.

Glen admits that he thought at first that it would be easy to take care of the kids by himself, but he found out that he was very wrong about that. “I felt like an imposter,” he says of his early years as a homemaker. Even though his wife Yvette says she wasn’t thrilled about Glen putting their family’s life on display for everyone to see on the Internet, she says it’s worth it because Glen is a much happier person as a stay-at-home dad.

Echoing what many of the fathers say in the documentary, Glen Henry comments: “The role of father has shifted in a major way. We went from providing, being there for holidays and disciplining to being all the way involved—and you kind of look like a dork if you’re not.”

He continues, “I feel like being a father made me the man that I am. My children taught me to be authentic and honest with myself. Fatherhood has given me a whole new identity.”

Reed Howard, who was expecting his first child with his wife when this documentary was being filmed, talks about the home videos that his father Ron filmed of all of his children being born. (Clips of some of those videos are included in the documentary.) Reeds says half-jokingly that since all of Ron’s kids were forced to watch the videos, it was “traumatic” to see part of his mother’s body that he never wanted to see.

Ron Howard’s father Rance (who died in 2017) is also interviewed in “Dads.” Rance says that when Ron was a co-star on “The Andy Griffith Show,” Rance suggested to Andy Griffith to not have Ron’s character Opie written as a brat. Griffith took the advice, and the father-son relationship on the show was modeled after the relationship that Rance had with Ron in real life. (Rance Howard and Ron Howard are the only grandfathers interviewed in the movie, by the way.)

Most of the dads interviewed in the documentary get emotional and teary-eyed at some point in the film. Ron Howard’s crying moment comes when he says that his greatest fear as a father was that he wouldn’t be as good as his father was to him. Reed (who is Ron’s only son) expresses the same fear about not being able to live up to the great experiences that he had with Ron as his father.

Selby has perhaps the most compelling story, since his son RJ was born with a congenital heart defect. Selby describes years of stressful hospital visits and medical treatments in order to help RJ live as healthy of a life as possible. This dedicated dad had to make many sacrifices, such as taking unpaid time off from work and forgo paying some bills in order to pay for RJ’s medical expenses. “There was no doubt in mind: I would forever be his protector,” Selby says of his outlook on being RJ’s father.

Selby is also the only father interviewed in the film who isn’t financially privileged, since he says that he often didn’t have a car during his son’s ongoing medical crisis. And when he did have a car, it was repossessed  multiple times because he couldn’t make the payments. He ended up working a night shift because it was the only way he could have a job (he doesn’t mention what he does for a living) while also going to school and taking care of RJ during the day.

Chantay Williams (who is RJ’s mother) and Selby were never married and didn’t have a serious relationship when she got pregnant with RJ. Selby breaks down and cries when he remembers that when he found out about the pregnancy, he didn’t want Williams to have the child and he didn’t talk to her for two months. But he changed his mind, asked for her forgiveness, and is now a very involved father.

However, Selby says that he still feels shame over his initial reaction to the pregnancy, and he comments that he’ll probably spend the rest of his life trying to make up for that mistake. Williams says in the documentary that Selby is proof that someone can change, and that he’s truly a devoted father and that his devotion isn’t just a show for the documentary cameras.

Quieroz (a married father of two sons and a daughter) knows what it’s like to not have a father raise him, since his dad wasn’t in his life for most of his childhood. He says that it’s one of the reasons why he vowed to always be there for his kids. Quieroz’s day job is as a mechanical engineer, but he also started a fatherhood podcast with two other Brazilian fathers, and he has a fatherhood blog. It’s through the blog that Quieroz’s estranged father got in touch with him. The outcome of that contact is revealed in the documentary.

Sakuma talks about how, in Japanese culture, men who don’t work outside the home are considered “society dropouts.” When he was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder 20 years ago, Sakuma could no longer work outside the home. He became so depressed that he contemplated divorce and suicide, until his wife begged him: “Please continue living for me.”

After Sakuma regained his health, one of the first things he wanted to do was become a parent, but his wife didn’t want to have kids. He says in the documentary that he began a personal campaign that lasted two years to get his wife to change her mind. She changed her mind when he told her that men can do anything when it comes to raising a child, except for pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. He convinced her that he would make a great stay-at-home dad, which he is to their son.

Rob and Reece Scheer didn’t expect to become parents to four kids in a short period of time (less than a year), but that’s what happened when they fostered four children, whom they eventually ended up adopting. Rob and Reece have three sons and one daughter; two of the sons are biological brothers. Rob (the older husband) says he knew that he wanted to be a father since he was 6 years old. Rob describes how he grew up with an abusive father, but that traumatic experience helped him know that he wanted to be the opposite of abusive when he became a dad.

The four kids adopted by Reece and Rob also come from troubled backgrounds, so Rob believes surviving his own abusive childhood helps him relate to his kids in that way. As for Reece, he was working two jobs when he decided quit those jobs to be the couple’s stay-at-home partner. They had to make the sacrifice of having a lower household income, but now the family lives happily on a farm, which the dads say has been beneficial for the emotional well-being of their kids.

Rob Scheer says that sometimes people say unintentionally ignorant things  about gay couples who are parents. “People ask, ‘Who’s the mom and who’s the dad?’ We’re both dads, but the one thing that we do is that we both partner. That’s what parents should be doing.”

One of the questions that Bryce Dallas Howard asks the celebrities is to define what a father is in one word. Fallon says “hero,” while Minhaj says “compass.” Many of the celebrity fathers in the documentary make obvious comments that are similar to each other, such as: “There’s no instruction manual/rulebook to being a father.”

And although Kimmel and Jeong briefly mention the medical scares they went through with their children (a heart defect for one of Kimmel’s sons, a premature birth for one of Jeong’s children), the documentary doesn’t show them opening up about these issues in a meaningful way. Instead, most of the celebrity soundbites are meant to elicit laughs. Several of the celebrities make references to their busy careers when they talk about how their work keeps them from spending more time with their kids, but they know that they’re working hard to provide very well for their children.

Although the non-famous fathers who are profiled  in “Dads” seem to be a diverse group because they’re from different countries and racial groups, they actually have more in common with each other than not, because they’re all middle-class fathers with children who were under the age of 13 at the time this documentary was filmed. It seems like these fathers were selected because they have young children who are in the “cute” stages of life—no kids who are teenagers or adults—thereby creating more documentary footage that was likely to be “adorable.”

Apatow and Smith are the only fathers who talk about how fatherhood became less fun for them when their children became teenagers. They mention that they had to learn to give their teenage kids space, adjust to their kids’ growing independence, and allow them to make their own decisions on issues, even if those decisions turned out to be mistakes. But since the documentary doesn’t do any up-close profiles of non-famous fathers who have teenagers, the only commentaries about raising teenagers come from rich and famous guys, and it’s questionable how relatable these celebrity dads are to the rest of the public.

For example, Smith has said in other interviews (not in this documentary) that he and his wife Jada don’t believe that their kids should be punished in their household when they do something wrong, their kids never had to do household chores, and he and Jada allowed their kids to drop out of school when the kids didn’t feel like going anymore. Apatow admits in the documentary that he’s also a permissive dad who never really punished his kids if they did something wrong. Is it any wonder that many celebrities are perceived as raising spoiled kids who are out of touch with the real world?

One of the other shortcomings of “Dads” is that, except for Selby, the documentary completely ignores major financial strains that parenthood can cause. It’s as if the documentary wants to forget that financially poor fathers exist in this world too. And even though Minhaj is the only one in “Dads” to mention the immigrant experience, “Dads” could have used more fatherhood stories from an immigrant perspective.

However, if you want a heartwarming look at famous and non-famous dads who say that parenthood is the best thing that ever happened to them, “Dads” fulfills all those expectations. This documentary is more like a series of love letters instead of a thorough and inclusive investigation.

Apple TV+ premiered “Dads” on June 19, 2020.

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