SPARKS: CREATING ITS OWN UNIVERSE MUSICALLY
Illustration by Steven Fiche
Long-running pop duo Sparks are now 22 albums deep and their latest, a musical commissioned by Swedish National Radio called The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, will be performed live at the Los Angeles Film Festival, with stage direction from Winnipeg wunderkind Guy Maddin, who hopes to direct a feature film adaptation. This interview by Lainna Fader.
Why did Swedish National Radio commission Sparks to write a musical?
Ron Mael (keyboards): We played in Stockholm a few times. For some reason there’s a following for us there and this woman who was the main person at the Swedish National Radio commission had come backstage at one of the shows. There’s kind of a system in Sweden where they really support live radio drama. It’s kind of considered something cool—it’s not something intellectual. So she contacted us in 2009. Most of the artists that have done work for Swedish National Radio are Swedish artists but she really liked what we were doing and she wanted to know if we’d do a radio musical. We were a little hesitant because we’re kind of visually oriented but we decided to go ahead with it. The only stipulation they put on it is that it had to have something to do with Sweden in some way. We were familiar with Ingmar Bergman and we love that sort of cinema so we decided to write something for them. They had the premiere of the radio musical and they have kind of a ritual there where everybody goes into basically a small opera theater but there’s nothing happening on stage. You just sit there and listen to it.
So they were staring at a blank screen?
Ron: Well, there was a picture of Bergman on the screen and a couple of exit signs but other than that it was kind of nothing. We were sitting in the audience and usually when you’re performing you kind of think that you’re pulling some strings sometimes but with this there was nothing, But the reaction was really good. So in any case we’ve always wanted to do a movie musical. We’re big fans of Guy Maddin and our mutual friend Michael Silverblatt introduced us. For about a year and a half we were telephoning and emailing and he really thought this was a great piece and wanted to direct it. Our manager sent the piece to the L.A. Film Festival and they really thought it was special—plus they really love the work of Guy Maddin so the combination of the two was something they were really interested in. They originally just wanted a table reading where everybody just sits there and sings or reads the thing and Guy Maddin was just going to do stage directions in between pieces but we thought that it’s not so exciting for an audience to watch people sitting there reading. We had total confidence that the music would work on a purely aural level, but once you added the visual element of people reading it seemed like it would be more boring. So one thing led to another and now we’re doing it on a pretty grandiose scale. We want to keep it from being a completely successful theatrical event, because our aim for doing this—to be crass about it—is to get somebody to finance the film version. And if they saw it as being finished theatrically then what’s the point?
What is it about Maddin’s work that you are attracted to?
Russell Mael (vocals): We feel a kinship with Guy in a certain way. He’s got a self-contained world and all of his films fit into that world. And it doesn’t necessarily relate to anything that’s not in that world or going on in film. Sparks has created kind of its own universe musically. It doesn’t really matter what anybody else is doing on the periphery. We think Guy has that same sort of vision with his films. He’s just in his own little world and we really like that world a lot. He doesn’t operate within the same parameters that are used in Hollywood. Having said all of that, we feel that the combination of what Guy does with this project is not so left field that it couldn’t have a bigger audience.
Bergman’s films are deeply impacted by his experience of growing up religious, losing his faith and then struggling with that loss for the rest of his life. How do you relate to Bergman in terms of faith?
Ron: We kind of understood him through his films, really. Our upbringing wasn’t as traditionally religious as his was. But there is a moment in this piece where he’s asking for God’s help in much the same way someone in one of his film’s would, and we wanted that to be sincere and not a joke. It’s the one moment in the piece where the Bergman character actually sings and that seemed like the way to make it seem really important for Bergman. Peter Franzen, the actor who’s doing that song, is able to perform it so it’s really touching, whatever your feelings are about religion.
Why is Greta Garbo Bergman’s savior?
Ron: Even though the starting point of the piece is the ’56 Cannes Film Festival, we wanted the time references to be all over the place so it wasn’t just a story about the past. So at the time that a savior is needed for him, to have Greta Garbo—another iconic Swedish figure—walking on the beach in Santa Monica and spiritually and physically saving Bergman seemed like the right thing to do from our perspective. She seems so iconic and out of place but we like things that are out of place. All these things are done with some absurdity but we never wanted it to be campy or just funny. We wanted it to be emotionally touching and we think we pulled it off as far as the writing went, but the people actually performing are taking it to another level. The combination of Peter as Bergman and Ann Magnuson really raised the level of the piece.
Russell: She is also kind of the bookend device to how he got himself in trouble by adventuring in to see this Hollywood movie. A Swedish device ends up showing him the way back to where he really should be—and that he made the right decision to clear out of Hollywood.
You guys did an interview in the 70s in which you said you liked doing music and liked acting, but you didn’t like combining the two in the same project. What changed?
Russell: Ego trip! I can’t even remember in what context that was said but I honestly don’t know. I think it’s more about combining the things on our own terms. It just depends what the project is. Our strength is doing our very specific vision and it’s the same with Guy. You take the person out of their world and you dilute their strengths.
Ron: Also—in the 70s, we were working within the song format. Even though they weren’t traditional songs sometimes, they were still albums of ten or twelve songs. By taking part of something that’s more theatrical and not as restricted, maybe our objections dampen because we’re trying to find a way to burst out of what we feel is such a limited view of what pop music is today. In some ways, what we always do is a reaction to what other people are doing. The more conservative other things seem to us, the more adventuresome we want to be.
You’ve said that you fight hard to not sound like a band who’ve put out 21 albums—how do you do that, and why?
Russell: I don’t think there are any other bands that would do the kind of project that The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman is. With 21 Nights, we were really convinced that no other band would ever do 21 albums in 21 nights. There aren’t that many bands that have 21 albums and the ones that do are groups with a more established, comfortable situation that wouldn’t want to go through what we did, rehearsing for four months for this. We know the Rolling Stones will not do 21 of their albums, even though they have more than 21. They will never do it—I promise you that! Having that kind of spirit of wanting to do things that other bands wouldn’t want to or couldn’t do keeps you fresh, as does wanting to do challenging stuff that gets people as excited as we were when we heard things on the radio that inspired us. Roxy Music was releasing albums when we were living in England in the 70s, and it was unspoken but we wanted to be able to compete. There was a competition when our stuff would come out while we were there and we’d go, ‘Oooh, what’s Brian doing now?’ You always heard about the Beatles and the Beach Boys working off each other, seeing who can outdo the other—just having that kind of provocative spirit. When you do something that makes you a little uncomfortable, those are the things that end up having the best possibility of sounding really fresh.
THE SEDUCTION OF INGMAR BERGMAN ON SAT, JUNE 25, AT THE FORD AMPITHEATRE, 2580 CAHUENGA BLVD., HOLLYWOOD. 8:30 PM / $18 / ALL AGES. ALLSPARKS.COM OR LAFILMFEST.COM.