It’s a Wonderful Life: The Sad and Beautiful World of Sparklehorse
Perhaps the best word describe the career of Mark Linkous is ‘doomed’.
His musical project, Sparklehorse, became a model critics’ band after releasing a series of glittering albums and EPs between 1995-2010. His five albums and three EPs were universally lauded on release and are still frequently referred to with all manner of glimmering adjectives. But with an eccentric and increasingly miserable driver at the wheel, the band never managed to cross over into the mainstream.
In 1996, Linkous suffered a drug overdose which left him paralysed from the waist down for six months. His legs never fully recovered from the event, and Linkous’ depression worsened. He struggled to come to terms with his illness for the rest of his life. Linkous’ story came to an abrupt and shocking end in 2010 when he fatally shot himself outside of a friend’s house in Knoxville, Tennessee.
In their new documentary The Sad & Beautiful World of Sparklehorse, filmmakers Bobby Dass and Alex Crowton have collected reels of rare footage and spoken to countless friends and collaborators of Linkous, creating a portrait of a unique artist who battled bravely against addiction, paralysis and mental illness.
We tracked down Dass and Crowton to talk about their personal connection to the film and how they approached the sensitive subject matter it documents.
You both worked on a shorter film for Sparklehorse back in 2007 before Linkous passed away. Why did you return to the subject of the band for this film?
Bobby Dass: In the mid-90s I would spend a large amount of my time rooting through CDs in old record shops. The guy behind the counter said, “You like weird stuff don’t you?” I did like weird stuff. He handed me a new CD of Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot. The case had a big crack on it. It could be mine for a fiver. He played me a couple of tracks and I fell in love with it. Alex and I always recommended different music, movies and artists to each other. We went to Uni together and have made films on and off with each other ever since. In 2007 we created a promo with Mark Linkous for the album Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain and interviewing him was really special. Over the years, Sparklehorse became a huge artistic influence on us both and when Mark passed away in 2010 we knew we had to do make something about him.
How did the project get started?
BD: It might have been naïvety on our part, but we forged ahead with the idea of making a documentary about Linkous, underestimating the choppy waters that lay ahead. We approached various people regarding funding but hit a brick wall each time. We plodded on – in between other work projects and raising our families – we would film an interview here or there, capture some B-roll footage and devise visual sequences.
In 2013, we bit the bullet and decided to go down the crowdsourcing route. We had mixed feelings about funding the film this way. We don’t like asking people for money, especially strangers. However, without the very modest amount we raised, we could never have completed the film. We’re very thankful to the fans for helping us.
How long did the film take you from start to finish?
BD: In reality, we talked about the making the film almost immediately after Mark passed away in March 2010. We filmed our first interviews for the documentary with Mercury Rev in the summer of that same year. The film was made in a piecemeal fashion over the course of 5-6 years until we completed the edit in 2016.
There were various legal issues regarding Sparklehorse and Mark’s legacy but we were very fortunate to have had support for the film from Mark’s mum and brother. We’ve had tremendous goodwill from Mark’s family, friends, artists, and of course the passionate fan base.
We had periods were we felt we might not finish the film and we weren’t very active with it. At other points the film consumed all of our spare time. The film has dominated both of our lives for so long that we’ve had to turn down paid work and other opportunities in order to finish it. It’s a relief to see the film finally being shown to the wider world and getting a great response.
There’s sensitive subject matter addressed in the film, like addiction, mental health and suicide. How did you approach these themes?
BD: It’s a fine line to tread, to not overstate those themes and plunge the film into melodrama. Alex would often have to reign me in if I came up with visual sequences that were too ‘on the nose’ or too bleak. We both wanted to make a film that celebrated Mark’s life and visually recreate the strong Sparklehorse musical aesthetic.
We hit upon the idea of dividing the film into different chapters named after each of his albums. Each album reflected a specific point in his life. Dark Night of the Soul seemed an apt title for the tragic end to his life.
We don’t ignore the demons that plagued Mark but we also don’t dwell on them either. When we first showed the film to the interviewees and contributors, many people are surprised how much humour and warmth there is in it.
Angela Faye Martin, who wrote the film and provided the narration, was a close friend of Linkous. What was her response when you approached her to be part of the film?
Alex Crowton: Angela and I found each other via a mutual friend and Mark’s mom Gloria and quickly became pen pals perhaps as long ago as 2011. Angela sent me her album Pictures from Home, which Mark produced for her and we talked a lot on the phone. I quickly became aware that Angela was a very talented writer, Bobby and I were struck by the poetic nature of her correspondence and her ability to be able to distil her memories of Mark into beautiful, profound and efficient prose.
We became good friends and when we reached something of hiatus with the production of the film in early 2014. Having filmed lots of interviews and secured a lot of archive footage, we seemed to be procrastinating about how to tie it all together. I picked up the phone and basically said, “help”. Angela being the warm hearted and generous person that she is said yes, despite the fact that Marks loss was still pretty raw to her. I think it was one of the wisest creative decisions Bobby and I ever made asking her to get involved. We have an excellent working relationship. We would send her stubs of ideas and structures for segments of the film and she would send back these beautiful poetic sequences. She really is a one-off and a hugely talented writer.
The film also features some other high-profile guests like Mercury Rev and John Parish. How eager were these participants to contribute to the project?
AC: One of the really life-affirming elements of creating this film has been the response from other recording artists to our requests for interviews. Mercury Rev were the first band we interviewed back in the summer of 2010. Jonathan (Donahue) is an intelligent and eloquent guy. I had previously had the good fortune of interviewing him for a documentary I made about the life and music of Jack Nietzsche, and I knew both Jonathan and Grasshopper were good friends of Mark’s and had toured together in the past. The moment we floated the idea of them being in the film they were in, Mark’s music meant as much to them as it did to those who loved Sparklehorse. It was the same with John (Parish), John was a real hero of ours, having produced some of the finest albums of the past 15 years or so, John was equally keen and welcomed us to his home to shoot the interview with him. He was extremely generous with his time and support as was Adrian Utley and all of the other contributors who appear in the film. The common hue that seemed to tie all of the contributors together was their genuine passion and admiration for Mark as both a recording artist and a human being. Without that passion and their understanding of Mark, this project would not have been possible.
What has been the response from fans to the film so far?
AC: Hugely positive. It’s very hard to please everyone, particularly fans when you undertake a project of this nature. We were very clear from the off that we didn’t want to create an encyclopaedia entry. I think we have created an ‘impressionistic’ document that reflects on the beautiful body of music that Mark left behind. Fans and the public alike seem to like that. We tried to allow Mark’s music and his authenticity to be the heart of the film and I would like to think that even the most fearsome Sparklehorse fan would see that.
Music has been a theme you’ve returned to repeatedly throughout your films. Will you continue making films about bands? What do you have lined up?
AC: Yes, our intention is to continue to reflect on art and artists. I am fascinated by the alchemy that goes into making records,and the forces that compel people to pursue a career as a recording artist. It’s early days for us but we have several seminal ideas in the pipeline ranging from something on the Canadian record producer Daniel Lanois to a piece on the ‘great rock ’n’ roll swindle’ that was the Wedding Present’s infiltration of the UK top 40 in the early 90s. We’ve also talked about doing something on rock ’n’ roll and the occult or the ‘secret life of the lovers tape’. We are keen, but intend to proceed with some development money and stronger financial backing behind us for our next odyssey. Watch this space.
To find out more about the film, check out the website