NZIFF ’10: Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields

nziff ’10: Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields
Dir. Kerthy Fix & Gail O’Hara | usa | 2010 | 82 mins.

Shot over ten years, this documentary looks at a band known only by a relatively small (by pop-rock standards) but enormously passionate cadre of fans, and thankfully never slips into hagiography. Rather than glorifying its somewhat enigmatic subject and his bandmates, the film looks at how and why Merritt and Claudia Gonson—his collaborator of more than two decades—have not only remained together as a band but also stayed best friends. (The film would seem to suggest that it’s because they constantly bicker and argue like an old married couple.) A highlight is when the filmmakers examine the controversy surrounding Merritt’s supposed racism: The New Yorker’s pop music critic Sasha-Frere Jones is forced to eat his words for labelling Merritt a “rockist cracker” seemingly without reason.

Featuring interviews with Sarah Silverman, Carrie Brownstein, Peter Gabriel and Daniel Handler—perhaps best known to some by his nom de plume Lemony Snickett—the film runs just shy of an hour and a half, and this seems the perfect length of time. Any longer and the filmmakers might have had to wrap-up by summarising the band’s career in overly-admiring terms, placing Merritt on a pedestal—something he would most likely have hated: he enjoys, he says at film’s end, walking down the street and not being recognised. Every so often, someone will walk up and ask “69?”—referring more often not to the sex act but to the band’s 1999 double album 69 Love Songs—to which he replies “No thanks!” He’s just waiting for the right person to ask that question, he says; until then, he’ll go on making records and living a quiet life unencumbered by the trappings of fame.

Strange Powers may be re-released at Rialto, but might also be relegated to DVD.