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Annette – Leos Carax

The Sparks Brothers on Annette and soundtracking musical sex scenes

The art-pop duo talk about teaming up with legendary French auteur Leos Carax, nearly working with Rihanna, and putting music to that very oral sex scene with Adam Driver

Deeply weird and deeply moving, Annette is a perverted rock opera that will tickle you to death. Adam Driver whispering lullabies while performing cunnilingus, Marion Cotillard giving birth to a wooden doll, and an almost non-stop score composed by the art-pop duo Sparks – it’s a melodic but melancholic drama to be watched on the biggest, loudest screen possible. Of course, that mandate applies to any film by Leos Carax, the legendary French auteur behind Mauvais sang and Lovers on the Bridge. Carax’s voice even opens Annette, his sixth film in 40 years, with an instruction: “Ladies and gentleman, we now ask for your complete attention. If you want to sing, laugh, clap, cry, yawn, boo, or fart, please do it in your head. Only in your head.”

As you may have read but could never imagine in your brain, Annette is an epic musical in which the dialogue is nearly entirely sung. Driver plays a stand-up comic, Henry McHenry, whose audiences are a choir – they sing-laugh in unison to a rhythmic, 4/4 beat, or harmonise their staccato heckles (“Sick! Sick! Sick!”) with tuneful venom. Also in Hollywood is Ann, a soprano star embodied by Cotillard in La Vie en Rose mode. Onstage, Ann serenades the crowd with delicate, emotional outbursts that span multiple octaves; after the show, Ann’s operatic confessions continue. Together, the duo sing “We Love Each Other So Much”, then produce a baby, Annette, who turns out to be a puppet with a miraculous voice. By the time cold-blooded murder and crooning ghosts enter the colour-coded picture, you’re convinced that only a madcap maverick like Carax could create such unsettling, dreamlike imagery.

In fact, Annette is the brainchild of Sparks, who concocted the story, cowrote the script with Carax, and composed all the music. If you’ve been living under a rock for the past five decades – or when Edgar Wright’s documentary, The Sparks Brothers, came out earlier this year – Sparks consists of two brothers, Ron and Russell Mael, aged 76 and 72. Based in LA, the American band have recorded 24 wildly different albums, amassing fans such as Björk, Thurston Moore, and Jack Antonoff. At gigs, Ron typically sticks to keyboards, while Russell roams the stage with a microphone. When I speak to them over Zoom in late August, they’re sharing vocal duties.

“We liked being able to do a movie musical that’s not traditional in how a movie musical has to be,” Russell says. “Annette is not an upbeat film, with an upbeat ending, which a lot of musicals tend to have. You can do things that are darker and use non-traditional themes within a movie musical context. The music can be presented in ways that are hopefully fresh-sounding. Things don’t have to be choreographed with dance routines. The movement can be naturalistic.”

As Carax’s introduction suggests, Annette is a film to be watched in one go, regardless of which screen you opt for, with a storyline that’s powered by music and unfolds like a magic trick. Reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, the characters evolve incrementally, scene by scene, culminating in Henry realising how drastically he’s physically altered. “It’s about how situations, and relationships between people, can change in really unexpected ways over the passage of time,” Ron explains. “You’re trying to compress that into two hours and 20 minutes. For us, it helps to do it in a musical way where things are more dramatic than in a normal film narrative.”

Initially, Sparks planned Annette as a Sparks album that they’d tour on stage with a female singer opposite Russell; Ron’s intended role, as The Conductor, is filled by Simon Helberg in the film. However, in 2012, Carax learned of their project at Cannes. The Maels were at the festival to shop around a proposed musical about Ingmar Bergman; Carax was on the Croisette for Holy Motors, which included a 1976 Sparks song, “How Are We Getting Home?”, on the soundtrack. Carax rejected the Bergman pitch but asked to be sent the script and demos for Annette. “Leos was telling us he’s a big fan of Sparks,” Russell says. “We felt a connection with him… After some reflection, he said, ‘I’d like to direct this as my next movie.’”

“I’ve never seen a movie musical that had something that blatantly sexual, that people are actually singing while performing, uh, other deeds” – Ron Mael

As with Holy Motors, Annette is an explosion of esoteric, memorable sequences, often soaked in eerie shades of green. An early highlight is when Sparks, playing themselves, perform the joyous opening number, “So May We Start”, which, according to Carax’s cinematographer, was inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s wedding video. Otherwise, Annette is pure Carax (aside from the moon, which was borrowed, via VFX, from Zombi Child). The incident that really garnered attention at Cannes, though, was Driver’s very oral sex scene – while going down on Ann, Henry pops his head up to croon, “We love each other so much”.

“Well, being a French director, Leos put in even more sex than we had in our original version,” Ron quips when I ask how they envisioned that moment for the stage. “I’ve never seen a movie musical that had something that blatantly sexual, that people are actually singing while performing, uh, other deeds.” Also surprising for Ron was a ship scene that was shot, at the band’s request, in a studio, not on the ocean. “Leos found the largest indoor water stage. The boat was rocking, the whole deck was wet, and the actors were slipping for real – that upped the feel and tension. So many times, Leos was able to figure out a visual way of representing what was going on musically.”

It helps, too, that Sparks are an inherently cinematic band. Their breakout hit, 1974’s “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us”, gained infamy for its Top of the Pops performance (Paul McCartney parodied Ron for the “Coming Up” music video), while their lyrics and bombastic instrumentals conjure up vivid, bizarre images – check out “The Final Derriere” in Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room. In the 70s, they nearly starred in a Jacques Tati movie (“Confusion” on the 1976 album Big Beat was the intended title track); in the 90s, they adapted a manga, Mai, the Psychic Girl, for Tim Burton, who dropped out due to scheduling.

“Leos focused on Annette for eight years,” Russell says. “He’s not the type of director who’ll have 10 films in development at any one time. He had this one film going for the entire eight years. We knew his focus was on the same wavelength as ours. And with that kind of intensity and passion, it had to turn out to be something special.”

“The relationship with the daughter was something that probably hit Leos in a more personal way. I think that was really the case of why he felt an additional attachment to wanting to do this film” – Russell Mael

Although Annette was mostly written before Carax’s involvement, some of the less supernatural elements align with the director’s own life. During preproduction for Holy Motors, Yekaterina Golubeva, whom Carax dated and cast in 1999’s Pola X, died at 45; their teenage daughter, Nastya, appears with Carax in the opening credits, and again in a coda to wave farewell. “The relationship with the daughter was something that probably hit Leos in a more personal way,” Russell says. “I think that was really the case of why he felt an additional attachment to wanting to do this film.”

In contrast, little is known about Sparks’ personal life, even with The Sparks Brothers. In Wright’s documentary, it’s speculated that Sparks, who are often erroneously called a British band, were too “gay” for America in the 80s, hence their popularity in Europe. (They are, in fact, both straight.) Notably, in Annette, an underlying theme concerns how fame wrecks the personal lives of artists, which makes it even more poignant that Driver, who’s notoriously private, takes the lead role. Curiously, Driver appears to be wearing Carax’s clothes in the second half. The Mael brothers can’t confirm or deny. “Huh,” says Ron. “He does appear a lot more like Leos at the end. Even the hairstyle.”

As insisted by Carax, all the singing in Annette is performed live, not lip-synced, meaning that any imperfections are captured and celebrated. In turn, Driver expands on his karaoke performance of “Being Alive” in Marriage Story. In Noah Baumbach’s drama, Driver’s persistence with the entire four-minute song is what’s so heart-wrenching, yet in Annette, the actor is possessed by overwhelming emotions that run for more than two hours, often in an undeniably catchy manner.

“Adam was really able to fit into what we had originally done,” Russell says. “We were happily surprised, because we had lived with my voice being that character for eight years. We discussed with him before filming that the style of singing should be more naturalistic, and less Broadway-like, and almost as if you’re a guy with a band. He was in total agreement.”

“Andy Kaufman was a comedian we discussed with Leos who we all liked… just that sensibility of being off-kilter” – Russell Mael

Although Joaquin Phoenix was Carax’s first choice for Henry, the director later stumbled upon Driver when watching Girls. Driver not only signed on as a producer (still his only producer credit), but the actor allegedly wants to shoot another movie with Carax next year. When Annettewas paused for Driver’s Star Wars commitments, Rooney Mara and Michelle Williams were announced and unannounced as Ann. “We weren’t involved in casting decisions, but we couldn’t be happier with who was chosen,” Ron says. “Adam, Marion, and Simon fit those characters so perfectly, we can’t imagine the film being done with anyone else.”

Fittingly for a project that started at Cannes nine years ago, Annette opened this year’s edition of the festival and won the Best Director prize – when Carax skipped the ceremony, Sparks accepted the prize on his behalf. Notably, the film proved to be a major talking point between those who really, really loved it – and those who really, really did not. It’s a film that prompts such passionate post-screening discussions, you might find yourself singing your arguments; it’s infused with so many idiosyncrasies that could be deliberate or subconscious, it’ll be dissected for years.

For instance, a Vulture article deconstructs the finale in which Annette repeatedly sings a refrain: “Now you have nothing to love”. According to Vulture, “Sparks’ fondness of wordplay” means that Annette is also singing, “Now you have nothing to loathe”. Ron, who read the piece, comments with a grin, “You take special pleasure at the over-analysis of things sometimes. That was a case where when a five-year-old girl sings, sometimes it isn’t pronounced exactly right. There’s no attempt to have a double-meaning. But if somebody wants to take that away from it, we’re not going to deny that that was intentional.”

Likewise, “So May We Start” received heavy praise for the “may we”/“mais oui” pun of the repeatedly sung title – surely an ingenious nod to Carax and the film’s bittersweet themes? Mais non. “When we wrote that, when Ron wrote those lines, there was not a French director attached to it,” says Russell. “It’s cool to think it could be taken as ‘mais oui’ in French, but that wasn’t the intent.” (I cross out my question about whether Cotillard was cast because her name, Marion, with Annette, forms “marionette”.)

“Rihanna was going to be a guest on a daytime chat show – but also Baby Annette was going to be a guest as well. Rihanna was going to sing a song – the title was ‘Upstaged’, I think – and Rihanna would be singing, ‘I ain’t never been upstaged by nobody’” – Russell Mael

Over-analysis is also encouraged by Henry’s confrontational comedy. He splutters into the microphone like Neil Hamburger, he messes about with a sampler like Reggie Watts, and he purposefully bombs like Andrew Dice Clay. Carax has namedropped, in his words, “that guy who went into that racist rant from Seinfeld”, while Driver thanks Chris Rock and Bill Burr in the end credits. “It was a hybrid,” Russell says. “Andy Kaufman was a comedian we discussed with Leos who we all liked… just that sensibility of being off-kilter.”

“It’s half performance art and half comedy, both at the same time,” Ron says. “And maybe comedians like Richard Pryor, where you’re revealing yourself so much in your performance. It’s not just a comedian standing there and telling jokes, but his whole being is being presented in his performance.”

Sparks, as prolific as they are, are already working on a new movie, but are hesitant to reveal the director’s identity. “We love being Sparks as well,” Russell says. “So simultaneously, we’re doing a new Sparks album, but we also have a new project – a new movie musical that’s very different story-wise than Annette. Very, very different.”

A 15-song soundtrack of Annette has already been released but a more expansive version with 42 tracks will arrive later this year. While it hasn’t been finalised yet, a number of Sparks’ original demos are likely to be added to the package, including the song they wrote for Rihanna to perform. In the end, Rihanna turned down the chance to cameo as herself.

“Leos asked us to come up with a piece,” Russell says. “Rihanna was going to be a guest on a daytime chat show – but also Baby Annette was going to be a guest as well. Rihanna was going to sing a song – the title was ‘Upstaged’, I think – and Rihanna would be singing, ‘I ain’t never been upstaged by nobody.’ But in reality, she’s there with this baby that’s way upstaging her, just because of the baby’s talents.

“It was more of a pop song. It would have been a good scene, but there were some choices Leos had to make to pare down the movie. Unfortunately, that scene was never shot. But the music exists for it… We got a female singer to come in and do the demo version of it. It wasn’t a hard leap to see Rihanna doing this song.”

Ron adds, “If she ever needs a hit song, just come on over.”

Annette is in UK cinemas on September 3