lf you couldn’t guess, Strange Powers is a documentary about Stephin Merritt and his band, The Magnetic Fields. And as we are told about The Magnetic Fields early on, via a title card:
To some, they’re an iconic band.
To most, they’re completely unknown.
Going into the documentary, I fell somewhere in between these two extremes. I have a passing familiarity with the group, and some of Merritt’s other musical projects, but I don’t actually own any albums nor do I know much about Merritt aside from having heard that he could be a bit cantankerous, as author Neil Gaiman explains early in the doc, noting that a magazine interview of Merritt “made Lou Reed look like little Orphan Annie” (Merritt’s former publicist explains that it’s not so much that Merritt is cantankerous or intentionally difficult as it’s that he’s “the type of person who doesn’t suffer fools lightly”).
Merritt and his fans see him as a bit of a quiet and misunderstood genius. Early in the documentary, I found myself siding more with those who think a bit less of him. For example, when Merritt talks about how his music is about “emphasizing interest and beauty over convention,” while other artists are more interested in emphasizing convention, well, I thought he sounded a bit like an ass. Other similar quotes make him seem like the type of conceited, egoist auteur, all full of pretentious indignation, that you just want to hate. And yet, as the documentary progresses, I found my perception of him changing. On the one hand, there’s a very dark and subtle sense of humor underlying a lot of what he has to say. And on the other hand, it turns out that a lot of what he says about himself comes from the fact that he simply has an understanding of himself and is willing to acknowledge that, yeah, he is kind of amazing.
The documentary gives us a quick take on Merritt’s background, such as when he was a copy-editor for Spin Magazine and Time Out NY in the ’90s (where “he was very indignant when he found a mistake” — man would he blow his top copy editing this site!) and then a music reviewer. But most of the film’s focus is on Merritt’s musical works, including his many collaborative acts with friend Claudia Gonson. While there are two others in The Magnetic Fields, in addition to Stephin and Claudia, the film gives every impression that Merritt is far and away the primary driving force. This appears to be less a result of the fact that his personality is the type that doesn’t allow for easy friendships (celloist Sam Davol, one of the other members in The Magnetic Fields, notes: “I love Stephin, but I’m not friends with him”), and more about his prolific lyric-writing ability and singular musical vision.
Perhaps because of these dynamics of Merritt’s personality, it’s unsurprising that the film fails to really dig its teeth in to give us any true or deep understanding of the man. The closest the film comes to really getting personal, in fact, is when it explores a 2004 incident where accusations of racism got thrown Merritt’s way, first after a blog commenter accused him of being a “rockist cracker” for failing to include more black artists in a top 100 music list, and then because of a comment he made on a panel about Song of the South and “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” (a comment which was taken horrendously out of context, as the film shows). The documentary goes on to tell us about critical pieces that were written up, decrying Merritt as an “intolerant, self-important, racist snob” who doesn’t like hip-hop and, therefore, is clearly the white devil. It’s all quickly brushed past in the film, by a black DJ who notes that what’s on your iPod doesn’t necessarily speak to what you believe and a mea culpa from the blog commenter who attacked Merritt. And I understand why the film moves past it so quickly since, first, it’s readily apparent that these charges and accusations were pretty preposterous and, second, the point of the film is not to take a huge aside on the import and impact of music on race relations. Yet I nevertheless found myself a bit disappointed, because this short segment was by far the most intellectually interesting portion of the film.
In any event, the trailer for the film, included below, gives you a good feel for both the subject matter and style of the documentary, although it is is deceptive in its reflection of the amount of people who offer talking head bits to the film. If you watch the trailer, you’ll basically see the entirety of what Peter Gabriel, Sarah Silverman, and Neil Gaiman say in the film, and the only non-member of The Magnetic Fields to really have a recurring voice in the film is Dan Handler (author of the “Lemony Snickett” series), who has previously collaborated with Merritt. At the end of the day, this film is a relatively inconsequential documentary. It’s certainly a must-see for fans of Merritt or The Magnetic Fields. Those more generally interested in the making of music or who are simply looking for a good documentary are also likely to enjoy it, as it is a well made film, just so long as you understand that there is no big takeaway or underlying feeling of import to the thing. And you’ll also probably jump right onto iTunes when it’s over and at least purchase “In an Operetta,” if not several albums.