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Annette: Ron and Russ Mael aka Sparks on Making the Music for Leos Carax’s Movie Musical

August 27, 2021 09:00 | By
Annette

A scene from Annette

If you’ve had a chance to see Edgar Wright’s documentary The Sparks Brothers, then you know that Russell and Ron Mael, collectively known as California’s mainstay rock duo Sparks, had been trying to get into movies for a very long time. Failed projects with Jacques Tati and Tim Burton didn’t dissuade them from approaching French auteur Leos Carax (Holy Motors) with a movie musical they had written, called Annette. When he agreed to make it, Annette would become the first of the brothers’ films to finally come to fruition.

The movie stars Adam Driver as shock comedian Henry McHenry and Marion Cotillard as beloved opera singer, Anne, whose passionate love affair runs into problems once they have their daughter, Annette. (You probably should know that for much of the film, Annette is played by a puppet, which seems like something that should be expected in a collaboration between Carax and Sparks.

Ron and Russell Mael wrote all the songs and music for Annette, and they even appear (presumably as themselves) in the film’s opening performance of the song “So May We Start.” It’s quite a new direction for the duo who have been making records since the ‘70s and have fallen into a fairly fluid and seemingly effortless way of producing music for their growing fanbase, even as their musical styles would frequently change over the decades.

Below the Line got on a Zoom call with the Brothers Mael to talk specifically about the musical aspects of Annette, and though we had some technical issues, we did throw in one final question of just something we’d like to see from Sparks sometime soon.

Ron Mael: For us, the idea of a script for a movie musical is kind of something that we don’t even get. We just see the music and the singing as being the script, so we went to him actually with an entire recorded piece. It was shorter than the film, but still, that was what we considered to be the screenplay. Obviously, after you kind of are working on the thing, then people, actors and all, need a written screenplay, but we kind of never thought that was even ever necessary, that what mattered for musicals, just how the thing sounds, how the voices work with the music, because it doesn’t really matter what it looks like on paper to us. Just in a technical way, they needed that after the fact. But when it was first presented to Leos, there was no traditional (I should say) screenplay.

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Ron and Russ Mael performing in Annette

BTL: Russ, did you sing all the parts like you normally would, and was this musical script something you could actually use for the final movie, or did you end up re-recording a lot of stuff?

Russel Mael: For the original version of it, I sang the part that Adam Driver is now singing and Ron did the Conductor’s part, and we had another opera singer, soprano, who worked with us to do the Anne that Marion Cotillard does now. And then we would even trade off roles. We were working fast, and I’d morph over to sing the Conductor’s role for a line or something as various lines were revised along the process, and even some of the original recordings, my voice and Ron’s voice are still in the original recordings like, let me think… 

Ron Mael: Like “The Storm is Rolling In”

Russ Mael: Yeah, “The Storm is Rolling In” on the boat, and “True Love Always Finds a Way.” I think I’m singing that basically in the movie version of the song, and then a lot of the backup thing. In “Six Women Have Come Forward,” that main refrain, that’s me stacked up 20 billion times of my voice. So yeah, my voice has been retained for a lot of the incidental things that aren’t obviously the lead characters’ lines. And then the opening piece, “So May We Start” starts with us in the recording studio and with both of us singing along,

BTL: I happen to love when you have 5 billion vocals stacked on your records. I’m not sure how your computer can handle that many tracks, so you were able to use your original demos and just replace the lead with Adam or Marian or Simon?

Russ Mael: My voice or Ron’s voice, whoever it might have been, were replaced with the actors with Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, and then, on certain pieces, a decision was made to have them actually orchestrated. So on those pieces that have orchestrations with a real orchestra, those were then not the original recordings that we had. So it was kind of this hybrid of recordings done in our studio with Ron playing. Most of the keyboard playing throughout the movie is Ron, even string parts and stuff that he would play on a keyboard, a lot of those had been retained. And then some have been modified with having real strings on top of those parts. So, it’s kind of this hybrid process of various configurations of how the instrumentation was done.

BTL: Did you guys work with Leos in terms of trying to find the three main actors, and the young girl who sings is pretty amazing as well? Were you involved with auditions? I assume Adam and Marion didn’t have to audition.

Russ Mael: No, it was Leos’s decision on all the actors and even Devyn McDowell, who is the young girl who appears at the end of the film. So those decisions were all Leos’ decisions. We thought they were all really brilliant decisions. Adam was amazing. He was the first one to be brought into the film, and he’s been with it for the longest, for maybe like six or seven years knowing about this project, and being a real fan of it. He’s a fan of Leos’ work, and he really responded to this material that we’d done and responded to the fact that it’s a full-blown musical, and he would be singing through the majority of it. And then, he later brought in Marian Cotillard, and Simon Hellberg, I think, was almost the last addition to the cast. He looked around a lot for the young girl who would be the Annette character at the end of the film, because he just really wanted to find the absolute right person. We thought, too, she did an amazing job to be able to not only sing that song, which is really difficult, the “Abyss” piece that takes place in the prison but to be able to stand up against Adam Driver and to interact with him in such an emotional way. She’s really amazing in it, we think.

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Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard in Annette

BTL: I just relistened to that last song, and I was tearing up hearing her voice, because it has such a somber quality that makes you emotional. Ron, working with Leos, how knowledgeable is he in terms of music? Does he have suggestions in terms of arrangements, or does he just let you two do what you do best?

Ron Mael: He has a real passion for music. I mean, there’s always been a really amazing musical sequence within each of his films, and, he made clear from the very beginning that he would need some input into things, but things weren’t all altered that much musically. There were additions to what was there originally. The “Abyss” piece was something that wasn’t in our original that he had requested. And also, “Girl from the Middle of Nowhere” and “The Birth of Annette.” But by and large, some of the lines were changed, and then we would have to reflect that in the music sometimes. The lyrics would not be exactly fitting in with a normal rhyme structure, and so we would have to figure out ways to cope with that musically. But, in general, he left it pretty much intact, and we were really pleased with that, and then, just adding those songs. We really felt in a good way challenged to come up with things that maybe didn’t sound like typical Sparks songs, but they would work in a really emotional way within the film.

BTL: I’m not sure it’s fair to say, but I think the overture “So May We Start” sounds most like a Sparks song right off the bat. Was that sort of the idea to have that song work as an overture to introduce everyone?

Ron Mael: We wanted the film to have a bookend of having a beginning piece and an end piece that were kind of outside the narrative of the film. Even before we got involved with Leos, “So May We Start” and the piece that’s at the end were there, and then the way that Leos was able to film that incorporating the actors and himself within that kind of outside the film kind of affair, it was done so brilliantly with one single shot. But those were pieces that were there from the start, and I’m not 100% certain, but I believe that was the first piece that we wrote for Annette, and I agree with you that it does sound like the most Sparks song within Annette. Obviously, it’s helped in that way because Russell begins the singing of the song.

BTL: Because I’ve seen the doc, I know your musical influences, but I was curious about your influences from actual musicals. I see Annette as something akin to Tommy or maybe Dancer in the Dark, but I was curious about what musicals actually influenced it.

Russ Mael: We really liked one film that we all agree [on], even Leos as well, was The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, that’s completely sung. There’s no non-singing pieces in it, and it’s all kind of seamless. We really liked that kind of naturalistic way that it was conceived where the actors sing, even sometimes these mundane situations like the opening scene of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, where they’re in an auto repair garage, and the guys that are working on the cars are singing, and you just accepted right from the start that things are going to be different and kind of more naturalistic. Before long, you kind of forget that people are even delivering their lines in a musical way. We really like that film as one reference stylistically. We kind of gravitate more stylistically to films that are more that way than opposed to the more Broadway-style of singing and musicals that have big choreographed dance routines, where there are hundreds of people in the street choreographed. Their dancing is less our kind of style and is less appealing to us for how you can do a modern musical today.

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Adam Driver in Annette

BTL: Henry’s comedy performances are two of the most striking and possibly divisive moments in the film, particularly the second performance where he’s booed offstage and he comes back out and sings a song that’s kind of antagonistic to his audience. Was that something that one of you had built up over the years that you wanted to get out about how the critics have behaved towards Sparks through your various stylistic changes?

Russ Mael: I don’t know. Maybe it crept in a little bit. I think you’re talking about “They Used to Laugh” and then reprimanding his audience for not laughing at his material anymore. We actually did a performance in Los Angeles last night — they had a premiere of Annette at an outdoor venue where they screened the movie, but we did a short, six-song set before and we actually did it as a band. We performed “You Used to Laugh,” so I was kind of concerned for the audience that hasn’t yet seen the film. I’m kind of telling them, I’m saying, “F*ck off.” I’m telling the audience to go to hell, and they’re seeing this guy on stage, and it seemed like I was being awfully rude, but they later would learn that it’s from the movie, and I wasn’t really telling the audience to f*ck off. 

We like that it becomes this thing where his audience is kind of turning on him, and then, his aggression back towards them, and then, there’s just this complete kind of chaos and that scene where he’s telling the audience probably the last thing he should have told them, but he’s telling them to go f*ck off if you’re not going to respond to my material anymore. That was one instance where it was not choreographed in a dance way, but the whole audience saying, “Get Off! Get Off! Get Off the Stage!” in unison, we really liked that. That, to us, is a really fresh way to kind of incorporate dialogue with an audience responding in a way that doesn’t seem like a hackneyed kind of way for a musical.

BTL: A few musician friends asked me to ask a few specific questions, but one asked about the chords for “So May We Start,” and I wondered if there’s been any interest in putting together a book of sheet music of Sparks songs like that for piano and/or guitar?

Russ Mael: Years and years ago, there was one, from the 70s period, when sheet music I think was more happening, as far as the thing that pop bands had, but yeah, maybe at some point, there’ll be a…

Ron Mael: Both cassettes and LPs are coming back, so sheet music won’t be far behind.

BTL: Sure. Having the music is still the best way to learn to play songs that you like.

Ron Mael: The only problem is I don’t read music, but we’ll get somebody else to do it.

Annette is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. If you want to know more about the Maels/Sparks, then Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers is a great place to start, and that can also be rented, via Amazon, in fact, but also via iTunes and other methods.

All photos courtesy Amazon Studios.