Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields (2010, Kerthy Fix & Gail O’Hara)

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It’s extraordinarily difficult to appraise something like this as a film instead of as a gift to the hardcore fan. The Magnetic Fields are really one of the seminal rock(-ish) bands to surface in the ’90s — along with Pavement, Radiohead, and Old 97’s — and Stephin Merritt remains a consistently inventive, vital resource today. I’m writing this in December, but when it’s scheduled to post the Magnetic Fields will have just released their tenth album, a triumphant return to Merge Records, and I will be a few weeks away from seeing them live for the first time. Needless to say, I’m kind of a devoted follower — so any kind of access I’m given to Merritt’s process as a tirelessly creative and oddball musician and (especially) composer is appreciated. But is there enough here to transcend the territory of the typical band-dedicated DVD and rise to the rock-documentary vitality of Stop Making Sense or even The Compleat Beatles? Not even close. I’d wager that if you don’t already love the Magnetic Fields, or moreover if you actively dislike or are disinterested in them, this film will have nothing to offer you. So is it a goldmine for me as a fan? I’d like to say yes unequivocally, but I must temper that a bit.

The Magnetic Fields are an unusual group, to say the least; beginning life as Claudia Gonson’s outlet for performing her gifted high school friend Stephin Merritt’s extraordinarily smart, often cynically humorous songs, the group has variously existed since then as a conventional synthpop group with a regular female lead singer, a one-man band recording sparse electronic demos, and finally a full-on acoustic quartet with far more elaborate studio arrangements and a revolving cast of supplemental players. Owing equal parts to the New Romantic movement of the early ’80s, ABBA and bubblegum at large, disco, classic synthpop, and the songbooks of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, Merritt has little aspiration to fit with any particular “scene” or with the rock & roll mass at all, which lends a particular irony to his usual classification as an “indie rock” artist.

This documentary, filmed over the better part of a decade, follows the band in the aftermath of their masterpiece and breakthrough 69 Love Songs, after which they took a few years off and signed to Warner Bros. (an engagement that ended with last year’s Realism and a subject this film interestingly doesn’t mention). Inevitably, the story of the band is more or less entirely the story of Stephin Merritt, his eccentricities, his immense talent, and his supposed acidic sarcasm. We see a bit of the latter in the film’s best and most hilarious moment, an incredibly awkward interview on a local Atlanta morning show, but on the whole his credited misanthropy seems along the lines of Charles Schulz’s: a good-hearted dry humor that many people mistake for something darker.

Strange Powers sets itself up as a character study of Merritt, but then it gets a bit muddled. For a time, it serves as a history of sorts of the Magnetic Fields, charting through their first LP (Distant Plastic Trees) but stating very little about its creation or reception beyond the superficial. This is sidelined when nearly a decade of material is skipped to move to 69 Love Songs, the crafting of which we’re thrillingly given a glimpse of in some grainy 8mm footage I could frankly have enjoyed in greater quantity. At other points, the movie presents the band in unadorned live performance, and these moments are rather lovely — but most are cut short, with few songs presented in full and some, like “Born on a Train” and “Take Ecstasy with Me,” cut down to tantalizing tidbits. The result is that it’s unlikely Strange Powers will spawn a new army of Magnetic Fields fans, which is kind of a pity. A few complete performances wouldn’t have added a lot to the skimpy running time here.

The most successful and fascinating footage captures some of the studio sessions for the albums i and Distortion in breathtaking detail, Merritt showing considerable command and enthusiasm as he directs guitarist John Woo to lose all “inflection” in banging out “Three-Way” and coaching Claudia Gonson on the piano part for “In an Operetta.” The lion’s share of the appeal of the Fields, in contrast to most bands of their generation, lies in the songwriting as opposed to their interplay as a band, and all four full-time members (the other is cellist Sam Davol, with alternate vocalist Shirley Simms and accordionist Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, regularly sitting in) cheerfully take their roles in Merritt’s compositions with no questions asked, and his bickering with lifelong pal / mother figure / pianist / manager Gonson over arrangements is a delight to witness. Of course, to fully appreciate this, you not only have to love the Magnetic Fields but also love their far more divisive synth-free records at WB, which haven’t reached the broad audiences Merritt and the big label probably hoped for, at least not after the massively popular 69. But i and Realism (commenced after filming wrapped) are fine records, and Distortion a brilliant one, and if you know them back to front you’ll immensely enjoy these parts of the film.

The best documentaries of this nature about pop groups have always been heavy on either information, performance, or crucial awareness of a band’s larger impact, like D.A. Pennebaker’s videotape release Depeche Mode: 101. Strange Powers touches on each of these things but doesn’t really go far enough in any direction to be as valuable as you’d hope. You learn more of substance about the band’s history, if not the way it operates, from the chapter about them in the 2009 history of Merge Records, Our Noise. I don’t want to suggest that what’s here isn’t wonderful for a lover of the band to see; that’s why it seems to breeze by in no time at all.

What’s clear is that the directors had something else in mind, really a portrait of accomplishment in a self-made bubble of sorts. Merritt and Gonson (and Simms) have known one another since school days, and they’ve made this strange but seemingly satisfying life for themselves and left already a legacy of some of the loveliest, most confounding songs written in the last twenty years, all achieved with an almost familial consistency. The warm but sometimes volatile friendship between the two of them is the crux of the film; revealing moments show the pair’s families mingling warmly, even as Merritt dismisses it all, wryly stating only that Gonson is “okay” compared to most “other people.” What we’re really seeing is a group of people for whom art and music are everything; even those who are not great creative geniuses gather around, rally behind, and protect the guy they know who happens to be one. There’s something quite beautiful about that, and I understand why it was so important to Fix and O’Hara to capture it. It makes me wish they spent more time developing that and less time asking Merritt ridiculous questions about “acupuncture” and focusing on an absurd controversy in which Sasha Frere-Jones, now the New Yorker’s pop critic, accused Merritt of being a racist because he didn’t feature enough black artists on a list he made and supposedly doesn’t like modern hip hop. The dust-up is based on forced misunderstandings and isn’t terribly interesting in the long-term, and I don’t think it needed all the screen time it gets. But you can’t have everything, and the fact that we have a big documentary about this phenomenal band is, I suppose, a gift enough in itself.

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