SIFF “Face the Music” preview: Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields


Strange Powers
directed by Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara
(USA, 85 minutes)

Festival Screenings:

June 6, 9:30 PM, SIFF Cinema
June 7, 4:00 PM, SIFF Cinema

This exquisite and well-balanced documentary about Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields was directed by Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara, the latter having employed him during the grunge years to write about and do copy editing about music at SPIN and Time Out New York.

The first question asked as the camera focuses on Merritt is, “What are you reading right now?” which is usually an arbitrary (and often unrewarding) one to ask a musician, but in Merritt’s case makes perfect sense. For two reasons: He’s definitely a reader, as you find out in the documentary’s main dramatic arc when he moves from New York to Los Angeles with a ton of books that have been lining his walls and scattered about his loft up till then (as well as when he harasses Magnetic Fields manager-multi-instrumentalist-mother figure Claudia Gonson for “not reading enough”); and like Bob Dylan, who was once reported to have said that you can be his friend if you don’t talk about Bob Dylan, Merritt is probably much happier discussing literature than himself or his music. (Books noted in stacks: Rhyming dictionaries, Daniel Handler’s Adverbs, an ABBA biography, Electronic Musical Instruments, etc.)

That doesn’t mean that Fix and O’Hara don’t give us a very good idea what Merritt and his band are about. If not an open, rolling dialogue of an artist’s profile, Strange Powers is filled with choice bon mots, hilarious anecdotes about gay bars and touring and recording, and lots of giggling and quarreling between Gonson and Merritt. The answer to the initial question posed to Merritt is answered by Stiff: A Life of Human Cadavers and Dr. Seuss’s Scrambled Eggs, Super! Which shows what Fix said of him in the Village Voice, “just being himself, a mind at play,” and that includes things both mordant and child-like. For the latter were given a tour of Merritt’s ‘ukulele collection, including one made out of a cigar box.

Perhaps for acceptance from more mainstream audiences, Peter Gabriel is quoted early on as being as being struck by Merritt’s music as “emotional, wise, and funny.” Close friend and collaborator Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket) offers that Merritt’s life might turn up somewhere in his songs but if it does it’s usually “obliquely. He’s not about honesty.” Comics creator Neil Gaiman (Sandman) says he had heard that Merritt was the “meanest, grumpiest, most unpleasant person alive” making Lou Reed seem harmless. A fundamental question will arise from this as you watch the documentary, though: How does he keep his band-mates, Gonson and John Woo (guitar) and Sam Davol (cello), around if he’s such a bastard?

Much of the movie is filmed in Merritt’s apartment, which had been his studio for decades for recording The Magnetic Fields and his other projects like The Gothic Archies and Future Bible Heroes. “That’s wrong, Stephin,” Gonson will say. “No, it’s not,” he will petulantly reply, but she’s right. You can tell Gonson adores and cares for Gonson deeply, and even if he has a little trouble responding verbally in kind, describes her later on as “flashing.” She reads from his “Formulist Manifesto,” a zine-type declaration probably forming in the 80s when they were adolescent punks and visiting the Cambridge, MA scene and learning to create interesting music without guitars. Phrases like “calm … mixed with eternally unrealized expectations (can) combine well with the text suggesting analogous emotions.” Merritt admits that his musical persona is a Droste effect, “someone singing a song in a gar bar with a cocktail in his hand, the song having been written in a gay bar by someone with a cocktail in his hand.” Merritt bristles at the idea of 70s cinema “auteur theory” imagery making even songwriting having to show “gritty, ugly” things (not unlike feminists in the 90s who argued against scenes of male dominance “having a cornerstone on reality,” I’d add). He envisions self-expression “as glamorous as Marlene Dietrich or Rock Hudson movies.” (Strangely, his own recording style involves whisks and cheap noisemakers and is mostly Do It Yourself and not very glamorous at all, unlike Busby Berkeley movies — but that isn’t addressed in this documentary.)

Merritt claims he tracked his “growing up in thirty-three different places with a lot of hippies” and that his mother once tried to fix a radiator by rubbing a green banana on it. “I still haven’t met my father,” he says, regarding an early 70s art-pop vocalist I wasn’t aware of before seeing this documentary. Strange Powers shows a good amount of early photographs when he and Claudia were starting off in bands like the Zinnias (which Merritt chose to sit the first gig out from, as it involved tuba), to the college radio ascent of “100,000 Fireflies” off of their first album, Distant Plastic Trees. Signed to Merge in 1995, the label was struck by the “electronic art pop” of the band’s sound, as Laura from Superchunk describes it.

Otherwise, the early work in The Magnetic Fields’ musical evolution isn’t dwelt upon in Strange Powers too much; the still-perhaps most appreciated era, after the 1999 release of the phenomenal three-CD 69 Love Songs set (begun in 1996, featuring many guests, and originally planned to be “100 Love Songs”), gets plenty of well deserved attention. Besides all the great bickering and observations throughout the film (“I love smoking in gas stations! The danger!”), and interviews that don’t seem too painful (Merritt seems at ease with Fix and O’Hara, as “at ease” as he’d probably ever be), mention must be made of the concert footage included. Songs like “Yeah, Oh Yeah,” “Come Back From San Francisco,” and “Papa Was A Rodeo” are performed brilliantly. I would recommend even a casual fan seeing “Strange Powers” just for them, and am holding out big hopes for a live concert DVD treatment as well. (Or at least more, full songs on the “Strange Powers” release itself.) It was these songs in this era that made the band and everyone around them realize just how different SM and MF were. Recording documentation continues through the noise-gall of “Distortion” (an album “which is written from the point of view of a chubby midwestern woman tired of being objectified… and goes to California with an axe to get her revenge”) to the beginning of the most recent full-length, Realism.

The unusual milieu of The Magnetic Fields’ fans can be traced through “15 year old straight girls and adult gay men,” and there are interviews with them as well as Cole Porter-remembering grandparent followers here. Handler says, “The usual image of a (MF fan) is a hipster with a broken heart.” But it’s obviously a very wide following for someone not celebrity-level famous, and an accomplishment for the kid of the hippie mom who once lived on buttered bagels before getting his break finding brief employment on the bottom rungs of rock journalism. And then becoming “secretly famous” from there.

In addition to the screenings of Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields during the Seattle International Film Festival at SIFF Cinema (Sunday, 6/6 at 9:30PM and Monday, 6/7 at 4PM), Merritt is also live-scoring the Paramount screening of the 1916 version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, with help from Daniel “Lemony Snicket” Handler on accordion and organist David Hegarty on Wednesday, 6/9 at 7:30 PM.

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