Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields
2010, NR, 84 min. Directed by Kerthy Fix, Gail O'Hara.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Dec. 3, 2010
You didn't actually think Stephin Merritt was going to cozy up to the camera and reveal his deepest-darkest, did you? This is, after all, a man so resistant to straightforward autobiography in his songcraft that he composed an entire album (2008's Distortion) from the perspective of a tubby, middle-aged Midwestern woman with a (literal) battle-axe to grind. From his first on-camera interview, in which the famously curmudgeonly Magnetic Fields' frontman levels a near-sneer at the off-camera interviewer and dodges even the most innocuous questions (he bats away "what are you reading right now?" like a bored cat), Merritt makes it plain that he's controlling the content. That isn't to say Strange Powers is uninvolving – any Magnetic Fields fan will get a kick out of seeing Merritt putter around his apartment studio, experimenting with the sonic possibilities of whisks and giving impromptu readings from his old songwriting notebooks (scribbled mainly, he says, whilst sipping cocktails to a disco beat in New York's many gay bars). It just isn't terribly revealing, is all. A tighter edit might have benefited the scenes of Merritt fiddling around in rehearsal, as when the camera hangs on a seemingly interminable musical misunderstanding with his chief collaborator Claudia Gonson, and with just 84 minutes filmmakers Kerthy Fix, a University of Texas grad, and Gail O'Hara, who was was once Merritt's editor at Time Out New York, could have easily expanded the background material (they jettisoned most of the band's catalog, skipping from 1991 debut Distant Plastic Trees to the 1999 breakout concept albums 69 Love Songs). There are celebrity talking heads – Neil Gaiman, Sarah Silverman, and Daniel Handler, to name a few – but what emerges as the most absorbing voice in the documentary is Gonson's. Merritt's friend since high school, she's a "mother/manager" in his words, and a "fag hag" in her own. The funny and fiercely protective Gonson is unguarded with the camera, speaking frankly about her role in the band and in Merritt's life and, as it turns out, it's the subtle underscoring of her unshowy, largely unheralded dedication to both that marks Strange Powers' real achievement.