One of the most haunting entries at the James River Film Festival is the documentary “The Sad & Beautiful World of Sparklehorse,” a lo-fi homage to its subject’s music.
The film mixes the appearance of antique film stock with poetic narration, charting the career and musical development of Mark Linkous, who developed Sparklehorse’s lo-fi garage pop from his rural Virginia home. He created a legacy that endures despite his untimely death in 2010 at 47.
The bucolic setting was not only a backdrop but also a fortress of solitude for the singer and multi-instrumentalist, who toured the world (albeit somewhat reluctantly) and collaborated with some of his most famous and talented contemporaries, including P.J. Harvey and Tom Waits.
Though Linkous lived briefly in New York and Los Angeles, the film concentrates on his career as Sparklehorse in Virginia, where he came into his own musically amid a sprawling, quiet countryside where he felt more comfortable experimenting.
The land and space inspired him in many ways. Friend David Lowery explains on camera how Sparklehorse’s characteristic vocals, crackling and whispery, derived from Linkous’ attempt merely to record lyrics late at night without waking his wife. Lowery recalls that the playback of these recordings were a revelation, one that helped spawn and solidify the now-famous Sparklehorse sound.
British filmmakers Alex Crowton and Bobby Dass traveled to Virginia in 2014 to interview subjects and get other footage for the film, inspired by their love of Linkous’ music, and their collaboration with him in the mid-2000s on a Sparklehorse promo.
Those first-person interviews with Linkous, along with a stellar supporting cast, are revealing. Linkous talks at length about his creative process, his near overdose touring for
“Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot” in the mid-’90s, and his battle back from a wheelchair that led to such subsequent breakthrough albums as “Good Morning Spider” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“Sad & Beautiful World” feels like a similar labor of love, one Crowton and Dass assembled on limited resources. Backed by the mesmerizing sounds of Sparklehorse, the result feels at once like a time capsule and a testament, a must-see for film and music fans alike.
“The Sad & Beautiful World of Sparklehorse” plays Sunday, April 9, at 3:30 p.m. at the Byrd Theatre, with narrator Angela Faye Martin and Mark Linkous’ brother, Matt, in attendance, with guests. $8.