The art of documentary filmmaking is a difficult one. Depending on your subject, the audience may be completely familiar with the subject or woefully lacking in even a basic understanding of what is being presented. And therein lies the difficulty-a filmmaker must shape the information in a way that appeals to both types of people. And when you add music in the mix, things become even murkier and more subjective. But there are times when a person or group of people strikes just the right balance of personal insight and general world building to create a view of a subject that acts as a primer for the uninitiated and a welcome justification for the dedicated fan.
And that’s just what the creators of “The Sad and Beautiful World of Sparklehorse” have done with their in-depth look at Mark Linkous and his tumultuous personal and professional history. Linkous was the founder and basic musical architect of Sparklehorse, a band that released their debut record, “Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot,” in 1995 and who would go on to some measure of success over their career. Based around rusty, broken-down melodies and Linkous’ whispered confessions, Sparklehorse was a band you stumbled across but would affect you for the rest of your life.
Directed by Alex Crowton and Bobby Dass, and narrated by musician Angela Faye Martin, the film goes about laying bare the life and times of the enigmatic singer. Breaking down the film’s chronology by record release, we’re given brief glimpses into his mind and heart through interviews with various friends and collaborators, including Jason Lytle of Grandaddy, David Lowery of Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker, and singer-songwriter Gemma Hayes and Emily Haines of Metric. Martin also is featured quite heavily, as she developed a friendship with Linkous that led to him producing her 2009 album, “Pictures From Home.”
We follow Linkous from his childhood, through his first few bands and into the years that marked his arrival at Sparklehorse. And this is all handled with the expert touch of someone who is intimately familiar with the material, which is a credit to Crowton and Dass’ abilities to inject a vibrancy and momentum to what is ostensibly the origin portion of the documentary. But without this setup and emotional foundation, the rest of the film wouldn’t feel as honest, or as poignant. Linkous had a fairly rocky childhood filled with divorce and a bit of juvenile delinquency, but he managed to find a bit of salvation through music and, with his brother, was able to translate that wild nature into a series of rhythmic expulsions.
The film approaches him with a bit of caution at first, allowing the viewer to see the buildup before the actual founding of the band. And by doing so, we feel that we’ve come to know him very well in just the short time we’ve been given. He was notoriously circumspect with regards to publicity and the idea of fame, but there is a somewhat-miraculous interview that is pieced throughout the film that features a candid series of thoughts from the generally reticent artist. The film doesn’t gloss over any of his addictions, troubles or issues with sometimes-unstable mental health. All this is presented in a way that rounds out his personality, giving our understanding of his situation a sort of hyper-reality.
As the circumstances around the release of each record are explored and we’re given some intimate details from some of his closest friends, a picture of Linkous develops. It doesn’t comprise some quick revelation but is a gradual reveal that paints him as both tortured artist and charismatic conundrum. He was self-effacing but full of a wicked humor that rarely showed itself to anyone but those closest to him. The film digs into his methodology and how he came to the sound that would characterize his work as Sparklehorse. In one instance, we learn that his devastating and whispered delivery was the result of having to sing quietly at night so that he wouldn’t wake his wife.
But what “The Sad and Beautiful World of Sparklehorse” does so well (and there are many things) is that it provides a posthumous voice for Linkous, a natural cadence that speaks to us from some place buried within our own memories. The film acknowledges the circumstances around his suicide on March 6, 2010, in Knoxville and doesn’t shy away from trying to make sense of what he was going through that led him to this very dark place. We are there beside him as he wrestles with crippling depression, financial difficulties and a host of specific insecurities. And we are also there when he takes his own life, robbing us of one of music’s most curiously beautiful voices.
The best documentaries make you feel as though you are experiencing a certain thing and not merely being taught about that thing. With this film, we become intimate with the man behind Sparklehorse-we’re given just enough light to see the cracks and fissures that marked his time on this earth. But that is enough. We may have to contend with the fact that he is no longer with us, but his voice is still singing songs of horses, mountains and rainmakers. And through “The Sad and Beautiful World of Sparklehorse,” his music continues to inspire and will hopefully reach the larger audience that it so assuredly deserves.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
Updated @ 7:54 a.m. on 4/4/16.