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With: Stephin Merritt, Claudia Gonson, Sam Davol, John Woo, Daniel Handler, Sarah Silverman, Sasha Frere-Jones, Peter Gabriel, Carrie Brownstein
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Kerthy Fix, Gail O'Hara
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 89
Date: 04/10/2010

Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields (2010)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Till the Bitter End

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Not everyone in Strange Powers has the nicest things to say about musician Stephin Merritt, the songwriter/singer/guitar player for the Magnetic Fields. Even on camera Merritt doesn't always come across as the friendliest or warmest of souls. Yet the co-directors of this new documentary, Kerthy Fix and Gail O'Hara, manage to work around this grumpiness. They read between the lines and come up with a most satisfying portrait of the artist as a middle-aged curmudgeon.

I first became aware of the Magnetic Fields back in the mid-1990s when I was in a little band of my own. Our bass player brought me a tape of their first two records, and I was quite struck by a gorgeous track called "Old Orchard Beach." Years later, my friend Daniel Handler was asked to play accordion with the band, but I unfortunately have been a bad fan and have not bought any further albums. So it was great to catch up via this documentary and learn that they still sound just as good.

Merritt writes songs for hours each day, sitting in gay bars, and sipping drinks. His songs are described as "gilded," and comedian Sarah Silverman opines that Merritt has a hard shell to cover up his soft, artist's soul. So the songs are openly clever and beautiful, but they tend not to reveal much about their author, or at least not casually or on the surface. Perhaps this is why their fans are so devoted; they have put in the work necessary to unlock the songs.

The rest of the band consists of Claudia Gonson, Sam Davol, and John Woo (not the film director). Gonson doesn't exactly describe herself as a "fag hag," but she does use the term once; she's essentially Merritt's partner. She handles most of his affairs, argues with him, and clearly idolizes him. She says at one point that a huge chunk of her identity is wrapped up in him and the band. Otherwise we get Davol, who says that he'd much rather be in a "rockin'" band like AC/DC or Boston. He says he's not friends with any of his bandmates and likes the way that setup works. Davol and Woo seem constantly amused and/or intrigued by Merritt's ideas. These almost casual interviews have an underlying push that serve to provide a more complete definition of the band's dynamic.

The documentary features interviews with the usual guest stars, like Carrie Brownstein from the great band Sleater-Kinney, who says that Merritt intimidates her. Peter Gabriel turns up to say that he thinks Merritt is a genius. The film also deals with an uncomfortable chapter of Merritt's life, revolving around a published list of his 100 favorite recordings of the 20th century. The music critic Sasha Frere-Jones claimed that the list was racist, since it didn't contain an appropriate number of black artists (it does have a few), and this "racist" label continued to stick. Things grew worse as Merritt spoke in public about one of his favorite songs, "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," which happened to come from the racist Disney film Song of the South. The documentary doesn't give much weight to these flimsy arguments, and even Frere-Jones is here to express his regrets.

Besides this appealingly matter-of-fact portrait of both the artist and the band, the documentary is a good showcase for the music, especially some of the stuff recorded for Distortion (2008). It passes the test of a good music film in that it made me want to go to the record store and catch up with what I've missed. The movie opens November 12 at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco.

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