Annette: Adam Driver Singing in Sparks Musical Is Even Weirder Than It Sounds

It’s serendipitous that Annette is making its premiere on Amazon now, only a matter of weeks after Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers documentary introduced the titular creative musical talent behind both films to a wider audience. As one of the most peculiar and beloved almost-famous bands of the last 50 years, Sparks are a tremendous musical force that were part of the British Invasion era of rock in the ‘60s and ‘70s (despite being from California) and who endured on to reimagine themselves as pioneers of ‘70s and ‘80s synth music, and then as composers in the ‘90s. With Annette, they try a new hat on as both the writers of the film’s story, as well as the songs which dominate most of the movie’s running time.

This is probably why I was reminded of a line in Wright’s doc: Audiences can never be sure when these brothers are being serious and when they’re just being cheeky. For at least the first half of Annette, audiences will most assuredly be asking themselves the same question.

Excluding an ebullient tribute to the musical act at the beginning of the movie, where both Sparks and the cast sing in one long tracking shot the band’s anthem “So May We Start,” the music and aesthetic conjured by Carax’s dreamy atmosphere is like a mournful dirge. This holds true even for a life that’s just begun in the case of poor Annette. Nothing your eyes see on screen feels necessarily real in a tactile sense—not with a singing puppet child nor with sights of intentionally exaggerated rear projection standing in for a nasty storm outside—but the overall effect these choices create is irresistibly melancholic.

Which might also be why another line from Ron and Russell themselves in The Sparks Brothers came back to me while watching Annette. Their musical storytelling was influenced by the movies of their youth. And for all of Annette’s strangeness, it very much plays like an old Hollywood melodrama of the 1940s, complete with accusations of betrayal, suspicions, and finally the unspoken paranoia of imminent homicide.

So the magic trick going on here might be just how emotionally raw Annette comes across despite such narrative histrionics. This is in large part because of its central performances. Driver is particularly brutal in the film in a role that calls on him to bear almost everything, figuratively and literally. His Henry is a comedian who wears his grievances on his sleeve, and every night before a new set, he prepares backstage like a prizefighter about to enter the ring by shadow boxing.

As with his most famous role, there is a simmering rage Driver embodies here, but with a greater degree of nuance and ultimately despair. There is little redeeming about this character, whose onstage comedy comes off as more bitter to our ear than funny when channeled through lyric and rhyme. It’s a sweaty, staggering depiction of self-loathing. He also brings the same anguished falsetto he did to that Sondheim number in Marriage Story, and indeed, one wonders if that inspired the Sparks who reach more toward  the sound of Company than rock and roll.

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