This is Sparklehorse is a documentary about the legendary US musician Mark Linkous who passed in 2010. After his death, UK-based film-makers Alex Crowton and Bobby Dass decided to honour his life, music, and enduring legacy.
In 2014, Crowton and Dass blogged about a successful US trip to interview some of Mark’s close friends and collaborators. However, they added:
“… there are still some sensitive legal issues surrounding Mark’s passing and his legacy, so as ethical filmmakers we must be as respectful to the Linkous family as we possibly can and wait for legalities to be resolved.”
An early version of the documentary is released
The Sad and Beautiful World of Sparklehorse received positive receptions at screenings in 2016 at the Chattanooga Film Festival, the 40 Watt Club in Georgia, and the IndieLisboa film festival in Portugal. However, a public release of the film was not forthcoming due to wranglings and ‘legalities’ prohibiting the release.
Given his music’s influence, many Sparklehorse fans knew early on about this film; however, the project seemingly was shelved for good.
However, Sparklehorse fans had their patience rewarded in September this year. A post on the film’s official Instagram profile @sadsparkle promised “Incoming news FRIDAY”.
On that Friday, the producers announced that This is Sparklehorse would be released finally. It’s been available to stream and purchase on Vimeo since 15 October. Keen fans will note that the announcement made on 9 September 2022 would have been Mark Linkous’s sixtieth birthday.
A close and trusted friend provides a sensitive account of Linkous’s life in This is Sparklehorse
Mark’s close friend, musician Angela Faye Martin, wrote and narrated the documentary. It is a gentle, immersive, and thoroughly respectful overview, including Mark’s early days in the music scene and the subsequent recordings of the five Sparklehorse albums. Clearly demonstrated are the respect and love for Mark Linkous. This is evident in the producers’ determination to bring it to fruition. And also in the warm words and reminiscing smiles of the artists and musicians who speak of Mark.
A kindred spirit in David Lynch
Film-maker David Lynch collaborated on the album Dark Night of the Soul. He describes he and Mark becoming very close friends:
“There are a few people like this… you don’t really need to talk… you just sit… we’d talk about life in general. He was just so great to sit with… and have a drink with.”
These are not mere soundbites, however. The film contains sections of a lengthy first-person interview with Mark. He takes us through some of the albums and processes, his upbringing, and his decision to avoid mine working. Many of his family were coalminers in Virginia where he was born. He talks about his ‘generous’ grandfather who left “three one hundred dollar bills on the kitchen table” when Mark needed a new guitar.
Linkous’s early career in ‘poodle rock’-era LA
MTV films in action Mark’s early band The Dancing Hoods who live and play together in their small rented house. The ‘band house’ is, unsurprisingly, slightly disordered at a time when the bandmates are still young and doing it ‘for the fun’. A youthful Freddie ‘Mark’ Linkous wields a Rickenbacker and deadpans that he’s looking to ‘turn the heat on next winter’.
The film’s second-person narration addresses Mark directly. It provides an intimacy that, for the viewer, reinforces the clearly close friendship that writer Angela Faye Martin shared with Mark. She explains Mark’s return to Virginia from LA after The Dancing Hoods, “leaving behind the poodle rock and the demons that climbed your back” prior to beginning Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, the first Sparklehorse album.
Returns home to Virginia
David Lowery, of the band Cracker, frequent Sparklehorse collaborator, and producer of Viviadixi speaks of Mark’s reluctance to sing, or as Mark explains:
“It’s really important for me to make as much noise as I want and not disturb other people especially having a recording studio, I don’t even like for my wife to hear me singing.”
Lowery explains, “(Mark) would sing really quietly into this microphone” late at night in his Virginia-based home studio (The Static King) to avoid waking his wife Teresa. Over time, this quiet approach to singing became, in Lowery’s words “this revelation… he had these songs inside of him… He’d been singing them hard and loud before…. but when he slowly unwrapped these songs in a really quiet way… they become their true selves… more who he is… and how he spoke… and who he was.”
David Lynch concurs, remarking:
“I like the tracks where you can almost barely hear his voice, but a feeling comes through… so tender and in a way sad, but sad beauty.”
Each new recording attracts eager collaborators
The film discusses each Sparklehorse album in turn. Mark’s reputation for crafting beautiful and otherworldly lo-fi songs had garnered him attention. In the mid-90s, Sparklehorse supported Radiohead on tour.
Various musicians, collaborators, and tour mates that he worked with over the years are interviewed. These include David Lynch, Gemma Hayes, Ed Harcourt, producer Alan Weatherhead, Portishead’s Adrian Utley, producer John Parish, and Mercury Rev’s Grasshopper and Jonathan Donahue.
Tragedy in a London hotel room
Naturally, the film touches on Mark’s serious accident during the Radiohead tour. He overdosed, collapsed unconscious, and pinned his legs beneath himself for nearly 14 hours. When the paramedics discovered him they must have straightened his legs out. This apparently caused him to have a heart attack as the prescribed and non-prescribed pharmaceuticals re-circulated. This resulted in weeks of recuperation in St Mary’s Hospital in London. Sparklehorse’s second album Good Morning Spider addresses this period. The subsequent pain that Mark endured after this accident sadly dogged him for the rest of his life.
Wheelchair-bound, he had to endure multiple operations on his legs. He worked through this pain to complete Good Morning Spider and subsequently tour as a disabled musician. He found camaraderie and support in his friend, musician Vic Chestnutt, who was also a wheelchair user. Mark said, “It seems like I was in that wheelchair for a long time… it made me a little more perceptive to small things… babies… animals.. insects.. things like that.”
It’s a Wonderful Life (2001) was the third Sparklehorse album. Martin states it was, ‘an alchemical stroke of timelessness‘ and ‘considered by many the apex of your [his] career‘.
Described by Martin as ‘an assemblage of pure Mark Linkous aesthetic‘, the album was full of collaboration, featuring artists including Tom Waits, Nina Persson, and PJ Harvey.
A galaxy of musical stars
Next, the film discusses album number four Dreamt for Lightyears in the Belly of a Mountain and the collaborative album Dark Night of the Soul. Dark Night was a collaboration between the producer Danger Mouse, David Lynch, who provided photography and vocals on two tracks, and a slew of artists on vocal duties, relinquishing Mark of the pressure to sing on all of the tracks.
Linkous’s close friend dies
Toward the latter third of the film, those who knew and collaborated with Mark in the music industry speak of the pressures he endured as an artist in the final years of his life.
These included financial pressures, separating from his wife, and relocating his home and studio from the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina to a friend’s house in Knoxville, Tennessee.
On top of this came the seemingly indefinite delay to the release of Dark Night and, just over three months before Mark’s passing, the suicide of his close friend Vic Chestnutt. Martin describes Mark and Vic’s friendship as an ‘almost religious affinity’. Vic’s passing understandably affected Mark in a profoundly sad way. As David Lowery says ‘that unfortunately set Mark into a spiral down’.
The final act
At one hour and eight minutes in, Martin deciphers and describes Mark’s tragic, final act. It is a heartbreaking and utterly empathetic monologue. Hard to watch, about a man who was loved by so many. Whether you knew him so well as Martin did or whether you met him fleetingly, as I did in 2003. He was an inspiration for my young adult self. Hard even if you’re simply a long-time dedicated listener of his delicate, touching songs.
David Lowery talks of Mark’s depression coupled with his reclusive nature. Mark moving out of his mountain home to be more ‘with people’ was a hopeful sign, he says. People believed, Lowery says, that this move would help Mark with his struggles. Because of this, his suicide was even more shocking.
As Martin points out, in a camera-facing interview clip, ‘Mark was going through several major life stressors at once… (He) was under a tremendous amount of stress… enough to buckle the toughest of us… and Mark was tough.’
A brother’s perspective
Mark’s brother Matt makes a couple of interview appearances in the film. At the start, Matt speaks of Mark’s return to Virginia, post Dancing Hoods. Mark was getting back to ‘what inspired him’ and ‘being with friends’ before he embarked on writing Vivadixie. Matt’s second appearance is at the end of the film. He describes how he and Mark would talk openly about Mark’s struggles with depression. ‘He would be really honest with me… we talked about suicide… we talked about depression… I would try to think of anything I could do to help… and then I got that call, on a Saturday‘.
As the film closes, before the credits roll, we hear soundbites of the people featured in the film. They talk about the influence Mark’s music has had on them. Martin says:
“There a consensus among those that knew him that they will never know another person as rare as Mark. His spectral bearing lent a magic to his diamond-hard focus and creative determination.”
This film is a testament to the dogged determination of Crowton and Dass who clearly recognised Mark’s musical legacy. Not only the fans who revere him, but also the celebrated musicians and others who were inspired by him. Praise is due too, to Angela Faye Martin, for the considered and thoughtful way she wrote about Mark and his work.
This is Sparklehorse is a much-needed and, now permanent, homage to a musician whose influence is so far-reaching. Mark’s personality and music are treated in a quiet, appreciative fashion, in a way that is befitting.
Twelve years after his passing that great, undiminishing mountain of Mark’s artistic legacy will continue to release more ‘yellow birds’ from its belly. Ethereal songs, soundscapes, and beguiling lyrics for future generations of musicians to be wowed and awed by, or to quietly absorb in a moment of reflection.
Please click here to read Even Butterflies Make A Sound’s brief encounter with the late, great Mark Linkous.