Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields

Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields

Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields (Directors: Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara): Very early in the film, a title card informs us that “To some, [The Magnetic Fields] are an iconic band. To most, they are com­pletely unknown.” I’m not quite sure why the film­makers feel the need to inform us of this banal­ity, which is true of just about every band, but this film isn’t likely to change any­thing about that equa­tion.

For the record, I hap­pen to like The Magnetic Fields very much, and I think Stephin Merritt is a prodi­giously gif­ted song­writer. However, my ini­tial sus­pi­cion that he and the band wouldn’t make for a very inter­est­ing doc­u­ment­ary turned out to be true. Despite some very nice per­form­ance foot­age, the film doesn’t really add any­thing to the band’s music. Merritt him­self con­stantly seems slightly baffled why any­one would want to make a film about him. Intensely private and per­ceived as some­what of a cur­mudgeon, he mumbles so often that the film­makers are reduced to provid­ing sub­titles for much of his dia­logue. His long­time col­lab­or­ator Claudia Gonson is chat­tier and more can­did and it is of some interest to hear her side of the band’s story, but even she admits that she and the other band mem­bers exist to per­form Stephin’s songs. While we see a small part of their work­ing rela­tion­ship (where they bicker like an old mar­ried couple), most of the actual song­writ­ing comes from Merritt’s long days or nights spent “with a drink and a cigar­ette” in one of the local gay bars.

The film was reportedly shot over ten years, but we never really know exactly where we are in that timeline. The band’s his­tory goes back to the 80s, when Gonson and Merritt met, but their greatest suc­cess came with the 1999 release of the monu­mental 69 Love Songs pro­ject, which is when I became a fan. There is foot­age shot dur­ing the record­ing of their 2008 album Distortion but every­one seems to be aware that their moment of fame has passed. Not that that both­ers Merritt in the slight­est. He seems con­tent to con­tinue writ­ing songs, although the film does chron­icle his sud­den decision to move to Los Angeles from New York to try to get work writ­ing film soundtracks. The film­makers seem to have missed the dis­cus­sions and think­ing that led to that decision, though, so a poten­tially inter­est­ing storyline is reduced to a title card.

The one moment of poten­tial drama comes around the one-hour mark, when Merritt is accused by some music journ­al­ists and blog­gers of being a racist. Their reas­on­ing? That he doesn’t like hip-hop, that he admits to lik­ing the song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” from the racist Disney car­toon Song of the South, and that he didn’t have enough black music on his list of the top songs of the 20th cen­tury, pub­lished while he was writ­ing for Time Out New York magazine. This ludicrous epis­ode simply blows over, though, and like Merritt’s mumbly mono­tone, the film returns to its oth­er­wise flat chron­ic­ling.

It’s hard to fault the film­makers. They are obvi­ously fans who want to share their enthu­si­asm for The Magnetic Fields’ music with oth­ers. But even with talk­ing head endorse­ments of the band from Peter Gabriel, Sarah Silverman, Carrie Brownstein (from the band Sleater-Kinney), and author Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler), the film will have a dif­fi­cult time reach­ing any­one who’s not already a fan.

Official site of the film



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