Most fan-docs are fairly remedial, but Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt And The Magnetic Fields is more sophisticated than the norm, in keeping with its subject. Directors Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara reportedly spent 10 years on the film, though that time span isn’t really reflected in the finished work, which jumps around in telling The Magnetic Fields’ story, relying heavily on just a few formal sit-down interviews. What sets Strange Powers apart is how Fix and O’Hara evoke the peculiar headspace Merritt occupies while he’s working. The movie features lots of scenes of him writing, recording, and performing, intercut with scenes of him roaming New York City or picking through his cluttered apartment. Extraneous chitchat is kept to a minimum.
The concert footage is one of Strange Powers’ main selling points. Merritt fusses over the sound and themes of The Magnetic Fields’ records, but live, the band is looser and more conversational. The documentary also captures the complicated relationship between Merritt and his collaborator/manager/friend Claudia Gonson, who bonded with Merritt over “the complex chord changes in early David Bowie songs” when they were teenagers, and has continued to be the person he’s most comfortable bouncing ideas off of. Strange Powers shows them bickering, painstakingly working on songs, and exhibiting more than a little passive-aggression in their stage patter, but it also shows Gonson handling the petty details of The Magnetic Fields’ business, so Merritt can focus on the creative side.
Strange Powers documents the making of the albums i and Distortion, and shows how Merritt’s recent move to Los Angeles put some strain on the band. It also gets into the hubbub that ensued in 2006 when Merritt was charged with racism for being insufficiently enthusiastic about contemporary hip-hop and R&B. (Not one of music criticism’s proudest hours.) Mostly though, Fix and O’Hara focus on the little bubble Merritt has created for himself, in which he can write timeless-sounding romantic ballads, then grab a sandwich at a dingy gas station on his way to perform them at some out-of-town nightclub or college campus. Meanwhile, Gonson stays busy packing T-shirts and CDs for an upcoming tour, while going over details with Merritt on the phone and signing off with a cheery “See you at Carnegie Hall.”