Fascinating footage of a sharp-tongued musician falters in a poorly structured documentary

Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields

on October 29, 2010 by Vadim Rizov

Stephin Meritt, the famously prickly force behind the cultishly adored band The Magnetic Fields, finally receives full documentary treatment in Strange Powers. Despite nearly a decade's worth of terrific recordings and live footage of the band - with Merritt's predictably enjoyable waspishness at the center - Kerthy Fix and Gail O'Hara's portrait is fatally flawed and sluggish, trying out half a dozen strategies without mastering any of them. Commercial prospects will be limited to hardcore fans looking for rare photos and live footage; not only is the film a slog, the main focus is on the band's arguably inferior last decade.

Straddling the line between chamber pop, show tunes and electronica, The Magnetic Fields make highly stylized music, with a focus on Merritt's deftly arch lyrics. The band's rise from '90s outliers to NPR favorites and healthily popular touring band is mostly glossed over; viewers looking for, say, a comprehensive history of Merritt's relationship with supportive label Merge (which took a big financial gamble releasing 1999's triple disk opus 69 Love Songs) would be better off consulting John Cook's book Our Noise. The '90s were arguably the band's most productive era commercially and creatively; here, a standard issue montage of newspaper clippings marks their ascent.

The doc's strong points are footage of Merritt and his long suffering friend/manager/bandmate/crutch Claudia Gonson rehearsing meticulously (technical arguments about time signatures prevail) and recording all manner of eccentric ad hoc percussion; by itself this footage would comprise a fine portrait, considering the ever private Merritt isn't prone to personal disclosure. Live footage is well shot, and dips into rare photos and early footage are appreciated.

But the film never focuses enough to make its disparate parts cohere. There's one pointed edit (from Merritt picking on Gonson during an argument to a live performance of the homicidal duet "Yeah! Oh Yeah!"), but most of the footage slops up against itself. In the absence of actual drama, the film devotes an inordinate amount of time to a six year old music blog war about whether Merritt's musical taste makes him racist; it was a silly dispute then and it's even sillier to see it recapped as a Serious Life Milestone complete with Slate.com screengrabs. The film grows tedious long before it's over. Merritt remains delightful, but the film never figures out how to best examine him.

Distributor: Variance Films
Directors: Kerthy Fix and Gail O'Hara
Producers: Kerthy Fix, Gail O'Hara and Alan Oxman
Genre: Documentary/Music
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 89 min
Release date: October 27 NY, November 5 LA


Tags: Kerthy Fix, Gail O'Hara, Alex Oxman

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