Strange Powers isn’t merely a romanticized portrait of singer and songwriter Stephin Merritt; a brilliant curmudgeon, curled up in a dark gay bar in New York City, anxiously scribbling clever rhymes his Moleskine notebook. Nor is it a comprehensive look at the twenty year-plus catalog of his main project, the Magnetic Fields.
This documentary, shot over the past decade, manages to get as close to an intimate look at Merritt’s creative process and the breadth of his accomplishments as can be expected given his misanthropic notoriety. It fills in the gaps with notes from his admirers (Peter Gabriel, Sarah Silverman), anecdotes from his revolving troupe of musicians (including Daniel Handler, the accordionist and children’s author, better known as Lemony Snicket), and somewhat charming shots of a droopy-eyed Merritt riding his bike the wrong way on a one way street or holding his Chihuahua, Irving (named for Irving Berlin, of course).
Inside Merritt’s crowded New York City apartment/studio, a sizable collection of ukuleles joins instruments as crude as plastic cups strung together and played like chimes. Co-directors Kerthy Fix and Gail O'Hara piece together a narrative of the musician’s life, including such details as Merritt’s affinity for lists and lyric notes like, “genders assigned randomly” and nitpicking towards perfection in rehearsals and recording sessions.
The surprising transition of this New Yorker to his new residence in the Los Angles area, complete with sunshine and citrus trees, frames the most important element in the film: Merritt’s relationship with mainstay musical collaborator with and friend since high school, Claudia Gonson. Glowing at center of the film as a singer, manager, and self-proclaimed “fag hag,” Gonson is the open-armed answer to Merritt’s insular nature, and a vital link to the longevity and success of the Magnetic Fields.
Merritt’s current pursuit of composing film scores in Hollywood brings the story up to the present, and leaves Gonson and the band in a bit of a limbo, working on music from both coasts. The biggest misstep of the documentary is the abrupt shift to the regurgitated drama that began with Merritt writing for Time Out New York, and ended with several critics deeming him a racist, based on his musical preferences.
Strange Powers isn’t only a relic of adoration for the superfans of Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields; it sustains itself as a profile of an influential musician whose character is as full of quirks and quips as his growing encyclopedia of songs.
-Mia DiMeo, ArtSlant Staff Writer
Strange Powers will be screened at the Gene Siskel Film Center Thursday, January 20th at 8:30 pm.