Noise Pop Film Review: Strange Powers Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields at The Mezzanine, 2/28/10

by Marie Carney on March 1, 2010

Added Bonus: Q & A with Stephin Merritt, Claudia Gonson and the Directors

The film Strange Powers, Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields opens with Stephin Merritt being interviewed by one of the directors.  She asks “What are you reading now?” and the question is greeted with a dark stare and stony silence.  This is how genuine the film is in its portrayal of this iconic songwriter, which is demonstrated in the Q & A after the movie.  Stephin Merritt doesn’t waste words.  Much like his song lyrics, his responses are concise and thought out. The good news is, for the most part, so is the film.

Strange Powers was made over 10 years of hard work and fandom from the film’s two directors Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara.  After that length of time knowing and working with people there is an obvious friendship between the directors and the band.  This is not a distanced documentary but more of an expression of love for a group of people.  Anything negative about the band or Stephin Merritt himself is spun in a way that, even while it’s happening, you just can’t be mad at them.  Even as Stephin explains why he could be considered annoying (he’s short, and he has a chihuahua) he is more charming than anything else.

Of course, there are the requisite celebrity interviews in the film.  Most of them occur near the beginning never to be heard from again.  We hear from the likes of Peter Gabriel, Sarah Silverman, Neil Gaiman and Daniel Handler (better known as Lemony Snicket).  With the exception of Handler (who contributes accordion to some Magnetic Fields songs), all these interviews are quick and to the point.  The band and their development are central to the movie, the few non-band members in the movie only exist to help emphasize a point of tell more of the back story.

What comes across the most in the film is how much Stephin Merritt and Claudia Gonson need and work off each other.  For all of Mr. Merritt’s dark charm, Claudia Gonson is sweetness and light.  The one real emotional moment in the film is an interview with Claudia after Stephin has moved from New York to Los Angeles where she states that even though she doesn’t want Stephin to live on the other side of the country, since he is happier there, it is worth it.  It’s a genuine and loving friendship that is fun to watch play out on screen, even when they are bickering.  It made me want to call my best friend and hang out.

The film ends with a perfect Stephin Merritt moment.  When discussing being recognized on the street he delivers dryly:  “Someday, someone is going to come up and say ‘Hey, 69!’ and I’m going to say ‘Sure’.”  Perfection.

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