Looming in the Gloom
Published on October 30th, 2010 | by L. Caldoran0
“Strange Powers” may be among the least debaucherous music documentaries ever. Neither boomer-rock paean nor therapeutic overshare nor cautionary tale of fame-fueled excess, this is a quiet little doc about The Magnetic Fields in general and Stephin Merritt in particular, a multitalented musician/songwriter who would rather discuss foreign films, play with his chihuahua, or show off his ukulele collection than snort lines of coke from the intimate areas of paid companions.
Well, at least as far as he’s willing to admit on camera. An intensely private man, Merritt wields his extra-dry sarcasm and Morrissey-like sardonic moroseness as shields against foolish or prying questions: a simple query at the start of the film about what he’s been reading lately leads to his casual refusal to say, followed by a fictitious list of books on fanciful subjects such as “the life of the human cadaver.” (Perhaps “Stiff”, by Mary Roach?)
“Strange Powers”, as a documentary of a modern musician, largely sticks to the conventional format of talking heads, concert footage, archival still photos, and candid shots. Many of the last are set in Merritt’s East Village studio apartment cramped with bookshelves and instruments, serving as a backdrop to recording sessions and frequent sibling-like bantering and bickering between Merritt and his longtime friend/collaborator, Claudia Gonson.
Those who wish to delve deeply into Merritt’s personal life may find “Strange Powers” wanting. Aside from some fairly bare-bones biographical details—Merritt was the only child of a wanderlust-prone single mom and a musician father he never knew—the emphasis here is on his rise to success in the music world and his interests, habits, and daily routines. For example, Merritt prefers to do his songwriting while sitting in gay bars for hours at a time, fighting the pulse of the mind-numbing club music: when he relocates from Manhattan to Los Angeles and must find a new creative haunt, he complains that Californians don’t start drinking early enough. Merritt has such an engagingly dry wit that it’s frequently fun enough just to hear him talk.
Merritt’s personal interests often run to pop-culture ephemera such as Tiki art and ABBA: interests which, incidentally, he shares with industrial-music pioneer Boyd Rice—and like Rice, Merritt has also seen a certain amount of controversy. A few years back, he was branded a racist due to his personal disinterest in hip-hop (the critic who referred to him as a “rockist cracker” now regrets doing so) and a grossly-misinterpreted sarcastic comment about “Song of the South” at a panel discussion. “Stephin Merritt racist” is still the second-most common Google search phrase for his name.
As a songwriter, Merritt’s approach favors craft over catharsis. At one point, Gonson quotes from his “Formulist Manifesto”, which champions the formulaic construction of bubblegum pop with an end result that still resonates: one may be reminded of ‘60s girl pop, songs about teenage love and loss often written by middle-aged men but imbued with emotional life by the young female singers and musical force by the producers. Merritt’s support for catchy pop aware of its own artifice comes years before Lady Gaga and is expressed far more intellectually.
Merritt’s primary project, The Magnetic Fields, has often been unfairly overlooked. Too self-aware to be outsider art and too lyrically astute for Top-40 pop charts, The Magnetic Fields have carved out a particular eccentric niche. In addition to their most famous work, the ambitious “69 Love Songs”, those who grew up in the mid-‘90s may remember songs such as “Why I Cry” from the soundtrack of idiosyncratic kids’ show “The Adventures of Pete & Pete”; the author of the Lemony Snicket novels has also appeared on various tracks as a guest accordionist. Many Magnetic Fields songs are short enough to be played here in their entirety without trying the viewer’s patience, such that what makes Stephin Merritt’s work important should speak for itself.