For some The Magnetic Fields are icons, for most, they remain unknown. Strange Powers, the documentary about The Magnetic Fields directed by Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara provides an unprecedented, intimate look at the band’s difficult-to-interview, enigmatic and brilliant leader Stephin Merritt.
“Stephen does not suffer fools,” says Daniel Handler a friend of Merritt’s and author of the Lemony Snicket series of books.
Indeed until the arrival of Strange Powers, virtually any interview conducted with Merritt since the band’s beginnings over two decades ago, has afforded little more than wry quips and deflections. Seen in the context of Merritt’s surprisingly candid participation with these filmmakers however, the reputation for being difficult or impenetrable dissolves quickly and in fact reveals itself to be nothing more than an extension of his pop-cultural wariness, razor sharp wit and erudition.
Back in the early ’90’s, whilst night club staff blasted Nirvana’s Nevermind whilst sweeping cigarette butts and beer bottle caps off the floor from the night before, The Magnetic Fields would be loading their instruments, consisting primarily of a cello, an acoustic guitar, several ukuleles and perhaps a piano through the stage door.
Their show would consist of songs about love, sex, heartbreak, romance, college and plays on words delivered in an almost childlike, most certainly non-rock format, fronted by Merritt’s irreverent, baritone voice, occasionally singing in duet with pianist and band-manager Claudia Gonson. Sam Davol would meticulously execute Merritt’s cello arrangements and John Woo would add air and rhythm to Gonson’s piano lines on acoustic guitar. Between songs Gonson and Merritt would carry on the banter they forgot to leave at the car in which they traveled from city to city, betraying the unique nature of their maternal, fraternal, incestuous, Platonic relationship much to the delight of the crowds.
“[There were definitely shows] where the band felt bigger than the room,” recalls cellist Davol: “It felt like something momentous was happening – or maybe the audience was just drunk…”
With archival footage dating all the way back to their teen years, growing up in the punk scene in the 80’s, to interviews with Merritt’s former employers as a copy editor and later writer for SPIN and TimeOut, through Merritt’s recent migration from New York to Los Angeles and even interviews with his mother at his new Cali home as he sits writhing in embarrassment, Strange Powers legitimately affords an intimate walk through and alongside the history of its enigmatic subject – a brilliant lyricist, arrangist, composer and performer with all the class of Serge Gainsbourg, all the lyrical capabilities of Leonard Cohen, and all the humor of Lord Buckley.
Fortunately the film is not only engaging because of its subject, but also because it is well paced, sequenced and edited, with visual elements delicately smattered throughout, allowing the personas and songs within to be revealed without ever over-saturating with adulation.
If you are not yet hip to the Magnetic Field’s catalog, get there now. Once you do, see this film and let your love grow.
Despite the fact that band fills large venues and is a darling of the New York middle aged hipster crowd, mainstream attention continues to elude them. In fact for this Canadian premiere of the film, the theater was only a quarter filled. Outside, lines stretched out half a block in anticipation of Biutiful. So it is difficult to say what sort of distribution this may find, and when it does, whether you will know well enough to lend it your eyes and ears.
If you are in Vancouver, one screening remains:
Sun, Oct 10th 11:00am
Tickets available through the official VIFF Website or at the door
69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields remains one of my favorite “albums” of all time (I use bunny ears only because it spans three discs. We discover, in the film that Merritt’s original intention was to create 100 love songs, each using a different set of instruments, drum sources whether acoustic or synthesized) and to this day, whenever I put this collection of songs on, I invariably want to run out onto a rooftop and proclaim how utterly overwhelmingly brilliant it all is. But instead, I typically end up keeping it to myself, like a small inexpressible wonder. After seeing footage from the recording of their eighth release, “Distortion,” I am not only ashamed of not yet having heard it, but more excited than ever to be exposed to their subsequent creative output.
Magnetic Fields Select Discography:
Distant Plastic Trees (1991)
The Wayward Bus (1992)
The House of Tomorrow (EP) (1992)
The Charm of the Highway Strip (1994)
Get Lost (1995)
69 Love Songs (1999)
1. Dungeon Masters
An attempt at eye-level documentary of three still-operating Dungeon Masters. One is an active American Reservist who has a wife one would assume to sway the army from examining his obvious need to come out. Another is a part-time apartment manager living in Torrance with a wife and kid who just can’t find a way to make a living doing what he does best – running a D&D campaign. The other is a lonely intelligent girl from Mississippi who paints herself black from head to toe to become a Drow Elf and frequently participates in LARP (live-action role-play). The score is by Blonde Redhead. The film is great, one of my festival favorites, but there is so much more to mine, that I left feeling a bit cheated and curious if it was really as neutral an eye as the introduction claimed. I felt a like the director was mesmerized by the nerdiness of it all. I think there is more to the culture than nerddom. But that’s just me.
2. Who Do You Love
Bleh. What is it with German directors who can’t grasp what it is that makes American music as cool as it is? An outside-in fanboy look at the Chess Record label, it misses every opporunity for nuance, subtext and so on and defaults to the same shitty Lifetime Network Movie of the Week about [Insert Blues/Rock Icon Here] growing-up-in-a-small-time, having-affair-on-his-small-town wife,-seeing-the-error-in-his-ways, trying to -to-get-her-back,-left-onstage-at-the-end-with-the-fans, but-was-it-really-worth-it? formula that we saw in Ray, Walk The Line, etc etc ad nauseum except to the point of caricature.
Stop-motion. Using almost Bunuelesque surrealism, a freaky fallen angel character who I am still contemplating, great voice work from Geoffrey Rush and company, eerie winsome soundtrack, a refreshing and candid fiction about the meaning of life.
Recommend if you can ever find it in distribution.
4. American Swing
Some documentaries are just plain archaeological digs that endeavor to retroactively reassemble a story from the few bone fragments discovered. This one feels like that and does a remarkably good job considering the short order of barely viewable beta 3/4″ footage they have to intercut between the HD interviews they shot with the old-folks who once moshed around in a couple of club basements in New York in the ’70’s fucking everything that moved. Then AIDS and coke came into the picture and the scene crashed and roll credits. Cool enough I suppose, if I cared a little more.
For a slow night, or if you need more insight into why people dig the Lifestyle.