Outside Within: The hidden narrative that explains ‘Annette’
Leos Carax's recent collaboration with Ron and Russell Mael has left people equally delighted and perplexed, It covers a vast array of themes such as toxic masculinity and neglect, but at its core is a story about fame, and what that means to it's authors, Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks. The stage is featured heavily throughout: “Is it outside you wonder, or is it within?” they ask as the movie starts. Well, it’s both. While most of the attention is on the tragedy and melodrama played on the “outside”, it also contains a hidden-in-plain-sight meta-narrative that’s deeply personal to the authors. If you move your focus to the movie’s on-stage performances, then a lot of what seems abstract and unknowable in this movie becomes clear and even more powerful.
Henry McHenry’s “comedy” is one of the most divisive parts of Annette, but it serves a vital purpose, which is to establish the in-movie audience as a major character. They open the film by telling us, the actual audience, that we have no part in this. We're instructed to “stop breathing” and “shut up and sit”. They don’t even care if we leave: “The exits are clearly marked, thought you should know”. We, the viewers, are the second most important audience in this film, so it’s worth looking at how each of the characters relate to this on-screen audience. When you think about the movie in terms of the on-stage performances only there are clear parallels to Sparks’ own relationship with art and fame.
This is seen most clearly when Henry’s adoring fans turn against him, something that Ron and Russell have experienced several times over. The first half of their career was defined by hard resets, continually building a following only to fall out of the spotlight with each reinvention. This is captured in the two comedy sets, each of which seems equally provocative, yet one receives adoration while the other is hated. This says that the audience is fickle, which can also be true of Sparks fans getting off the bus way too early. Edgar Wright's 'The Sparks Brothers' showed that despite appearances, the brothers have faced difficult times. Henry's pain is their pain.
The interesting thing about Anne’s performance is that it goes unseen by the audience. During Henry’s routine, we see short segments of her in close-up. Her back is turned to the audience but she's still giving it everything. Later we see the full performance shot this time from the back of the auditorium, and she’s a distant figure. The heightened emotions that were shown in close-up are completely lost to those watching. There’s even a moment where she rushes to the lip of the stage but it's completely unlit. She then departs the stage to wander a forest, leaving the opera-goers completely out of the picture.
Despite this, she receives rapturous applause when we later see her take her bows, so they love it, despite missing so much. This is similar to how Sparks are misunderstood even by their own audience. Time and again they hit big in a territory where people only see a fraction of what they do, be it as a glam rock band, synth duo or one-hit wonders. Their 1994 European hit ‘(When do I get to sing) My Way’ is a tragicomic story about a has-been singer who yearns for recognition (which remarkably it earned for them). This nuance was lost in the noise of nightclubs and daytime radio.
Even fans who know their catalogue front-to-back are at a complete loss to explain why Sparks do the things they do, despite there being a heightened sense of purpose and conviction to their every move. In 2008 they played all 21 of their albums, complete with B-Sides and one-offs, then barely promoted it. If any other band were capable of replicating this feat then the boxset would be out in time for Christmas, but not Sparks. Their art is paramount and somehow feels like a closely guarded secret. It’s a big part of the fun for us fans, but how does it feel to Ron and Russell if nobody truly understands their work but still they take their bows, bows, bows?
Also hidden from the audience is The Accompanist, the man behind the curtain (both literally and figuratively). Like Ron, he’s using his “technical expertise” to propel a gifted singer to great heights while remaining in the background. This is the voice of the introverted pianist we see at every Sparks concert, who is silent and stern throughout, but still feels the pull of the spotlight with short outbursts of arm-swinging dances or stage bizarre magic. They’ve spent an entire career on the periphery of fame, much like the accompanist: “Ah! the tease! / of being so near / so far / from the star / from the stars / but one day I’ll join them”.
This outsider’s quest for glory is writ large in Sparks music. In ‘Pulling rabbits out of a hat’ they sing about someone who performs actual miracles on-stage, but only gets polite applause for what the audience sees as cheap tricks. In ‘One for the ages’ an anonymous office-accountant is secretly completing his classic work of fiction, and his colleagues don't suspect a thing. In ‘What are all these bands so angry about’ they complain about the state of the pop charts (that they were no longer able to crack), then place Sparks into the same league as Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Wagner and Beethoven. This theme comes back again and again.
Seeing The Accompanist return as The Conductor is another parallel to the authors' own story. Their career can be quite neatly split into two, at first as a fight for survival as an ever-shifting band trying to fit into an ever-shifting music world. Then, in 2002, three full decades into their career, they released 'Lil Beethoven', an album that's an expression of complete creative freedom (which in itself is the hidden theme of the album). No longer needing a record label to survive and free of commercial considerations, the band set a new template and built on it for another 20 years. To quote The Accompanist as he dreamed of his future: "I'll lead orchestras near and far / Every bar / Every bar / Will bear my own signature".
The relationships of Henry, Anne and The Conductor are rich and fascinating, but the off-stage story serves only to set up the on-stage moments where they live out what fame means to Sparks - it's something they’ve been picking apart throughout their career. But this is where it gets really interesting, because “somethings about to change”. In case you didn’t know, Sparks have a movie coming out!
Baby Annette is surrounded by imagery inspired by the movie theatre, born in a dark room with illuminated screens, standing on a stage mimicking the beam of a projection booth, and only singing when the light falls on her in darkness. She is the film. The audience is transfixed by her theatrical debut much like us in the cinema, and the performance ends on another screen, this time a mobile phone.
Sparks are unfamiliar to most who will see this movie, so the reactions are from young children looking transfixed. Their fame is to be amplified, as seen by the shift from the theatre to the HyperBowl (hyperbole, lol), with its stage at impossible heights and the eyes of the world on Annette. It’s establishing a new relationship with their audience, so they must learn the lessons of the child’s parents: Henry, Anne and The Conductor.
When the light shines on Annette, we hear a reworking of her mother’s aria. The song is low key at first but devastatingly beautiful, Its rich orchestration and soaring melody does not sound like the work of a songwriter who's never before turned his hand to this operatic style. It's as accomplished as anything Ron Mael has written. “Afraid / don’t know why / where is the moonlight?”. These are Anne’s words, foreshadowing Annette’s performances. “Afraid / afraid of you / something about that look in your eyes”. This is a very real expression of how Ron and Russell Mael feel about offering their art up to the entire world. They’re afraid of Henry McHenry’s audience, only bigger (also seen through the clown-faced baby that he dreams of).
Annette’s wordless version of the song takes on a magical quality at the intimate theatre performance, then scales up to fit the impossibly high stage at the HyperBowl. It's the first piece of music in the film to sound truly accessible, starting with a bluesy riff and slow pounding drums that underpin a choir heralding Baby Annette. It shimmers with anticipation and could be the most epic song recorded by Sparks, but we don’t get to find out. They’ve planted a beautiful melody throughout this movie, and this is the moment where it should lock into this Stadium sized groove, but Annette remains silent. It’s a crushing moment.
If the rest of this song is as good as I anticipate then this is a supreme act of self-sabotage to throw away the most anthemic song. And it’s not the only time they do this. What has surprised many Sparks fans about this film, myself included, is how they’ve shied away from their own strengths, yet the power of what they do still shines bright. They’re an incredibly funny band (sometimes you get the joke on the first listen, sometimes it takes 30 years), but even though humour is a key theme here it's almost as if they’ve written it out of the film. The clever word-play usually found through their lyrics is sparse, but notably present when the accompanist is displaying his technical expertise. Importantly the soundtrack is stripped of the pop-sensibility that’s been present in almost all of their work. They even stack the odds against themselves with the live on-set singing, using the unflatteringly harsh reverb of the rooms in which they take place, as opposed to the comfort of the recording studio that they abandoned within a minute of the film starting. It’s as if we’re outsiders looking in.
Musicals should end with the sound of joy and laughter, and Sparks are uniquely positioned to offer that, but they don’t want the world to fall in love with ‘Annette’. This is a story about what it means to realise your dream of reaching the top echelons of fame when you’ve been tortured by it for over 50 years. Yet its pull is so strong that it compelled them to produce a high-profile movie with their name all over it. It even introduces them on-screen as the authors.
The whole feel of the production is as if they’re saying “don’t mind us, we’re just making a movie, watch if you like”. This project is something that their artistic drive compelled them to make, but if they execute it to their full power then it could destroy their lives.
Imagine if Ron and Russell had not chosen the arthouse route, and instead worked with Edgar Wright, a director who knows how to translate their imagery on the big screen. They’d have tuned their concept into something that compliments his style, and everything that we love about Sparks would be heightened. The pop sensibility, the visuals, the humour, all the ingredients necessary to make a hugely popular movie, and the world would have a new favourite band. In Edgar’s version, they would’ve played the full version of ‘Baby Annette’ as an outpouring of joy to end the movie, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy where Sparks become world-famous and loved as the same happens to Annette on-screen. They’re good enough to pull that off. Instead, they use their self-fulfilling prophecy to prevent that from happening.
As a Sparks fan, I just pray that they release a complete version of the Baby Annette’s finale someday. It sounds so good at first, but then they murder it. The tension of seeing a baby girl alone and upset in the world’s biggest spotlight is jarring, so when the song is restarted it still sounds huge but is stripped of any sincerity. It restarts again, but this time it feels like an affront. You want it to stop. Here's the song that should showcase everything great about Sparks and their movie, but they’ve twisted it to offend. Just in case you had any positive feelings left about this song, Annette forever associates it with the line “daddy kills people”. Speak soft when you say it.
I hope that you enjoyed this. Please share if you did, and get in contact if you have more ideas along these lines. My next post will be about how the themes in 'Annette' connects with Sparks' music, and it should provide more evidence that this interpretation is correct. People enjoy searching for meaning in art-movies, but the same scrutiny isn’t applied to music in the long-form. This method of hiding a second meta-narrative behind wild and wonderful characters underpins most (if not all) Sparks albums reaching back to at least 1979’s ‘Number 1 in heaven’. It’s all one big story, and I’ve written about it here: https://www.sparks-onefortheages.com.