Confusion at the Mael box: Sparks speak of their Jacques Tati film that never was

“Jacques Tati has a feeling for comedy because he has a feeling for strangeness.” — Jean-Luc Godard

It could been a contender. One of the most intriguing collaborations that never was happened to be when legendary French filmmaker Jacques Tati started work on a sequel to Playtime that he’d planned as an acting vehicle for two musical brothers from Los Angeles, Ron and Russel Mael, otherwise known as Sparks. On the 40th anniversary of Tati’s passing in Paris, a small remembrance of the un-filmed project.

One of the reasons that Ron and Russell Mael enjoy a strong following in the film community, as the fascinating 2021 documentary The Sparks Brothers explained, is that the satirical theatrical siblings have always drawn from cinematic reference points in their own work. It’s all too apropos that the pair would lend their talents to Leos Carax for the ingenious Annette, but in the Mael’s recent interview with Little White Lies, they discussed a little-known collaboration that never quite came together.*

A giant of alternative French cinema, legendary actor director Jacques Tati’s unfinished film Confusion was to be a “visionary project” in which he offered a gloriously choreographed critique of the encroaching globalisation of the world, where activity is dominated by television, communication, advertising, and modern society’s infatuation with visual imagery.

Confusion was planned as a follow-up to the auteur’s 1967 masterpiece, the laconic futuristic PlayTime — in many ways Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville mixed with mime — that dealt with the damaging alienation caused by urbanisation and modern corporate life. The filmmaker had even decided on a shock start to his new feature. In the opening sequence Monsieur Hulot, his lovably old-fashioned alter-ego, would have been killed off, in a mix-up with a real and prop gun.

The film had Hulot working in a sleepy rural TV channel and his death leads to the arrival of two young modernisers: a pair of American network execs (the Mael brothers) who bring with them bags of Hollywood expertise and input into how the sleepy station can make the upgrade.

This town ain’t big enough for the both of them? N’est-ce pas incroyable, non? 

While the script exists, the project was never filmed.

There are certain areas of the world where Sparks are considered to be more than just quirky cult artists, and one of those countries is France, where they’ve had a number of hit songs and albums.

What would have been the movie‘s title track, Confusion, appears on Sparks’ 1976 album Big Beat, with the booklet of its 2006 remaster CD featuring a letter announcing the pending collaboration, as well as a photo of the Mael brothers in conversation with Tati.

Forty years after the director’s death, the Sparks brothers have explained at the fabulous Graphik Designs website how a rep from their then UK label Island facilated the team-up with Tati, having observed that their “two little universes” were “running side by side in a certain way”.

Ron Mael: “We were to be in Tati’s film Confusion, a story of two American TV studio employees brought to a rural French TV company to help them out with some American technical expertise and input into how TV really is done. Unfortunately due to Tati’s declining health and ultimate death, the film didn’t get met.”

Tati gets his Mael

Russell Mael: “We were discussing with a guy from Island Records in Europe fun things to do that weren’t involved with being in a rock band and how to just kind of expand the whole thing… Jacques Tati’s name was brought up and we just kind of laughed it off. Anyway, he approached Tati and somehow got him to come meet us. Jacques Tati didn’t know anything about Sparks because he was 67 years old and doesn’t listen to rock music… The biggest disappointment of our career? Not making the film with Jacques Tati.”

Steve Pafford

• BONUS BEATS: In 2004, after a concert at the Hackney Ocean in London, I was invited to meet the Maels, who told me about another collaboration they wanted to happen… with an equally legendary English pop duo. Alas, now is not the time. But if it’s Brits you’re after, on the same day Tati died, a maverick music show from Newcastle was born, on the brand new suitably alternative Channel 4. Brothers and sisters, here’s episode one of The Tube

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