This is a repost of a review that ran earlier this year at SXSW 2010. The film is in limited release starting this week.
On an usually hot Sunday in typically balmy mid-March Austin, Texas we made a horrible call. In retrospect, it’s a no brainer decision, but we chose unwisely. Our choices were either the eponymous documentary about Motörhead frontman and living rock relic Lemmy or the Stephin Merritt/Magnetic Fields documentary, “Strange Powers.”
Now half of you are laughing out loud right now and with good reason. On one hand you have a roaring troll of a rock god subject, ostensibly replete with stories of excess, debauchery and those ghastly speed warts and on the other hand you have the snide and curmudgeonly Stephin Merritt, one of the more notoriously prickly subjects in contemporary indie-rock.
Clearly our priorities were egregiously mixed up? What were we thinking? Well, Merritt is obviously the greater artist of the two — no offense Mr. Kilmister — a modern day songwriter whose acute and wry work has earned him comparisons to Cole Porter, Oscar Wilde, Brill Building virtuosos and various other impressive rosetta stone figures in literature and songwriting. Merritt is a contemporary poet and one who’s storytelling efforts tend to cut through the noise of bad lyrics expressly becomes his traffic in a form of ironic, sarcastic and earnest disingenuousness. Though sadly, almost every Magnetic Fields cover out there on YouTube always misses the point and is delivered with a dripping sincerity that would surely make the misanthrope recoil in horror and the documentary only barely touches upon this unique approach to his songwriting.
But the greater artists of the two doesn’t necessarily make for the better subject of the two, especially when captured and conveyed rather unremarkably by directors Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara. Ten years in the making, “Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields,” the documentary certainly doesn’t live up the fact that it’s been worked on for a decade, nor is it particularly engaging despite the rather compelling figure that is Merritt.
It’s also blandly and typically laudatory, hailing Merritt as this thorny genius and framing him as impenetrable, aloof and one who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. The problem is while all of this is mostly true, it’s a story that’s been told over and over again in every Magnetic Fields or Stephin Merritt profile. The dynamics and dichotomy between Merritt and his chief bandmate Claudia Gonson — the band’s pianist, manager and Merrit’s life-long friend who understands him perhaps more than his own mother — is interesting, but again, pretty old territory.
While this might be great as an introductory tool for most audiences — and perhaps that’s the entire point — for anyone with even a basic understanding of the group and its leader, it makes for a fairly tepid and underwhelming experience that tells us very little of what we don’t already know. While Merritt is Sahara dry in his wit and slow as molasses in his speech and responses, the documentary seemingly follows suit and never seems to deliver any kind of energy, life or pace. The filmmakers are clearly first-timers and well, it shows.
In trying to create some kind of melodrama, the filmmakers even bring up a dull, long-forgotten 2004 drama set in the world of boring-as-shit indie-rock critics and politics, when Merritt was accused of being a racist by New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones and feminist zine writer Jessica Hopper who is essentially the ur-text cliche of annoying, self-righteous, riot-grrl-styled politically-correct scribe who seemingly never left that archetypically militant and sanctimonious grad school.
Frere-Jones outright apologizes in the documentary and unequivocally says he was wrong (he called Merritt a “cracker” for delivering a top 100 songs of all time music list that contained few African-American authors), but giving any ink to the latter writer — who took Frere-Jones’ posit and ran with it, dubbing Merrit a racist when he innocuously said at a Seattle Music conference that “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” was a brilliant piece of songwriting — was just moronic as the initial disputation was a non-controversy. Essentially its the documentarians giving attention and validity to one of the more inane non-stories in recent music criticism history and message board dorks with too much time on their hands.
The film features appearances by ex Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein, the aforementioned Sasha Frere-Jones, Peter Gabriel (who essentially thinks Merritt is the tits of songwriting), and Neil Gaiman (who has collaborated with Merritt in the past), but most of the quotations are just framed as more hagiographic blowjobs and yes, Merritt is particularly a cut above as a songwriter, but the constant panegyrics get a little tiresome.
We’ll admit that perhaps, we’re a little too close to the subject, we’re well versed with Merritt history and the especially excellent band and some may argue this documentary isn’t for us, but we’d like to think any music documentary should be ideally be interesting and absorbing for any audience member and “Strange Powers” isn’t particularly engrossing at all. Still, we suppose you’ll have to decide that one for yourself. [C-]
Here’s the trailer once more if you didn’t see it when we posted it a few weeks ago.