Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt And The Magnetic Fields Dir. Gail O’Hara and Kerthy Fix

[Variance Films; 2010]

Styles: music documentary
Others: The Devil And Daniel Johnston, Danielson: A Family Movie

We’re fast reaching a point where every seminal musical act will have at least one documentary dedicated to them. New bands don’t even have to prove their endurance before a crew joins them on tour. Considering this glut of fawning interviews and unshaped backstage footage, it’s worth appreciating the films that at least succeed as valentines to their subjects, if not as riveting works of art themselves. Although there’s no shortage of critics willing to trumpet the songwriting skills of Stephin Merritt, Strange Powers does a commendable job of exploiting the charisma of The Magnetic Fields’ droll, difficult bandleader. Finally, fans get to see what his notorious mid-interview pauses look like.

Frequently joining Merritt on screen is drummer/manager Claudia Gonson. Their banter, remarkably lively after nearly two decades of friendship, is the film’s highlight. Whether sharing old photos from their goth youth or debating who’s held a note too long, this sharp but loving back-and-forth helps to humanize the coy craftsman (watching Merritt cringe as his mom describes his teenage Anglophilia has a similar effect). Although quieter than Gonson (the “Loud” in Merritt’s Gay And Loud publishing company), the other Fields (guitarist John Woo and cellist Sam Davol) come off just as intelligent — sympathetic supporters of Merritt’s wryly romantic chamber-pop rather than browbeaten yes-men. Considering his instrument, it’s a surprise that Davol is the only person in the film to suggest that Merritt could have been more sympathetic to the underground scene that supported him before 1999’s breakthrough 69 Love Songs allowed them to escape dingy clubs for Lincoln Center.

Strange Powers has been in the works since the release of that 3CD opus, and it sits heavy in the middle of the film’s chronology. Their earlier efforts are discussed mostly en masse, and of his later, more varied projects, only the 2008 Magnetic Fields album Distortion — Merritt’s ironic tribute to the indie rock he claims to despise — gets much attention. Although the celebrity tributes to Merritt are blessedly brief, the film could use a critic or two to discuss his prolific career and reaffirm just why the guy matters. It feels like a sour non-sequitur when the film brings up the embarrassing 2006 blog uproar concerning his cheering of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” over hip-hop, dwelling on this “tempest in a digital teapot” while failing to describe side projects like the Gothic Archies and Future Bible Heroes (his guest-heavy 6ths albums are ignored entirely).

Good luck finding a music doc that doesn’t leave aspects of the artist and their efforts unexplored, though. Despite these quibbles, Strange Powers gives fans an intimate, entertaining look at the circle that brings Merritt’s music to life, their personalities blending charmingly with the music. The film might even sell a few copies of those albums not named 69 Love Songs, even if the newly curious aren’t sure where to start.

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