The sneaky, cockeyed tunesmithing of Stephin Merritt, the mind behind cult favorite the Magnetic Fields, finally receives a filmic examination in the well-crafted “Strange Powers.”Notoriously cool, if not hostile, to interviewers, Merritt appears to have opened up as much as he’s ever likely to, with filmmakers Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara, the latter of whom tracked him for a decade. Fans will drool at the generous access to the band; the docu’s sure to turn on new listeners with its Oct. 27 Gotham opening.
O’Hara in fact has worked for Merritt and the band, and began the filmmaking process simply by recording for posterity. Her access may well have been as much hindrance as help, especially had she approached matters with the same rabid attachment as Magnetic Fields fans. She didn’t, and vet documaker Fix further ensures a steady view that refuses to fawn but remains friendly.
Nevertheless, Merritt retains a distinctive opacity that’s part of his appeal, and even while he opens up his old diaries and notebooks to the camera — revealing the original thoughts and ideas behind such a magnum opus as the band’s massive, suggestively and accurately titled “69 Songs” record — he clams up in front of the lens or deflects with a bon mot when he feels the need.
Much of the first hour blends a roughly chronological history of the band, from its start in 1989, and several visits during the songwriting and recording phases, dominated by Merritt and loyal music partner/pianist/band manager Claudia Gonson. Bandmates Sam Davol (cello) and John Woo (guitar) round out the ensemble as it’s existed since 1994, and generally let their graceful, folk-tinged music do the talking. This is particularly true during several lengthy concert sequences, which helpfully tend to present songs in their entirety, reflecting Merritt’s deadly serious approach to songwriting (albeit with an acid sense of humor).
Somewhat disrupting the film’s flow is a section devoted to a minor controversy stirred up when Sasha Frere-Jones (now music writer for the New Yorker) blogged about Merritt’s seeming preference for “white” music over “black” music. The little brouhaha is pointless, though, as Frere-Jones regrets he ever brought it up.
The film’s fly-on-the-wall approach seems less a strategy than the result of the filmmakers’ long-term commitment to the subject, so that we see not only Gonson and Merritt bickering like an old married couple (he’s gay, and she jokingly calls herself his “mom”), but also Merritt writing in his favorite Christopher Street bar — something even diehard Magnetic Fields heads might never have imagined from their reclusive musical hero.
Fix and O’Hara were also able to capture Merritt’s surprising move from his beloved New York to Los Angeles, where he decided he had to live if he wanted to realize his dream of writing for the movies. If the film has a significant hole, it’s a lack of inquiry into why Merritt would want to plunge into an industry that would force him to give up some artistic control. Still, what may have been a light fan letter of a movie concludes on a note of uncertainty.
DV cam work by lenser Paul Kloss is raw but clean, while crucial sound work (both production recording and re-recording mix) capably reproduces the band’s vast range of acoustic instruments. As if he needed it, Merritt receives endorsement from no less than Peter Gabriel, who declares him “one of America’s great songwriters.”