Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields
The Magnetic Fields last tour t-shirt was simply the slogan “Listen to The Magnetic Fields,” which at first sounds like the kind of pandering frat boys would use to justify their terrible taste in reggae music, but the catch was “THE” took up the majority of the shirt. Passer-bys would have to squint to read the nearly invisible “Listen to” and “Magnetic Fields.” The shirt perfectly sums up the band; they take what publicity they can get, but they won’t beg for anything. Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields is the documentary equivalent of the “THE” t-shirt. Despite putting out record after record of great tunes, the documentary focuses very little on the music.
The film looks at the eclectic band’s front man and creative driving force of Stephin Merritt. Merritt is a gay bohemian curmudgeon who writes poetry that is a cross between comic, adorable, tragic, ironic, beautiful, deprecating and genius. His lyrics make him a mystery of a person and seeing the band live only adds to his mystique. So, when I heard these documentary filmmakers followed him around for ten years, I circled this film as a must see on my trip to SXSW.
Strange Powers is not a band documentary; it’s a character exploration of a man who happens to be in a band. We get to watch this prolific songwriter in his element, which happens to be an over-stuffed apartment in NYC where the band records all of their albums. We see him writing in bars, getting hassled by cabbies and his usual surly stage demeanor. Merritt is a fascinating person who I’m terrified of getting to know. This documentary allows me to see the man function at a safe distance away from his perceptively honest tactless critiques of the people around him.
As much as this is a character driven documentary it’s also a love story between Merritt and fellow bandmate Claudia Gonson. She is the person that knows Stephin best, and the other members of the band claim they are not, in anyway, friends with Stephin. The two, claiming to be like an old married couple, bicker and raise their voices at each other through the entire film. While the rest of the characters that pass in and out of Merritt’s life fear him like a stack of tracing paper fears an oscillating fan. Claudia seems to be the only one who can poke fun at Stephin and let his insults roll off her shoulders. Look past the bickering and gnashing of teeth and you see two people lost without each other. It’s impossible to describe the type of relationship they have (one part besties, one part maternal nurturing, one part siblings and two parts professionals, mixed with knowing each other almost too long and that just scratches the surface), but this relationship is the heartbeat of the film.
[audio:http://godonnybrook.com/home/wp-content/themes/mimbo2.2/images/Strange-Powers-Magnetic-Fields-Cover.mp3|titles=Strange Powers (Covered by The Shins)]
Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields opens this Friday at the new Denver FilmCenter/Colfax. If you love the band, see this film. If your old roommate was kinda into them, but you never got them, see this film. If you remember them from an NPR story, see this film. If you think magnetic fields are a force produced by moving electrical charges, see this movie.