“I’ll take that kiss now,” Stephin Merritt sings toward the end of “Papa Was a Rodeo,” a ballad from the 69 Love Songs triple album that brought his band, the Magnetic Fields, into the public eye in 1999. In their documentary Strange Powers (Variance Films), co-directors Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara deliver that kiss in filmic form. For those who, like this reviewer, are already fans of the Magnetic Fields, Strange Powers serves as a handy pocket-size supplement to the vast and rapidly expanding Stephin Merritt songbook. But I’m not sure that this 82-minute valentine to the phlegmatic, saturnine, perversely charming Mr. Merritt will recruit many new listeners to his band’s work. Though we see a few songs performed onstage in their entirety, this is less a concert film than an intimate glimpse at Merritt’s working process.
As presented here, that process seems to consist principally of holing up in his East Village studio apartment with his keyboardist, manager, and collaborator since adolescence, Claudia Gonson, as they hammer out melodies at a piano, adding sounds from kitchen whisks, gongs, homemade chimes, and whatever other instruments they improvise from the clutter. Later, as the songs get closer to recordable shape, other band members are brought in: John Woo on guitar, Sam Davol on cello, Daniel Handler (aka the young-adult author Lemony Snicket) on accordion. But the relationship at the heart of the movie—and, the film suggests, of Merritt’s life—is his warm, bickering, codependent friendship with Gonson, who cheerfully admits that her role blurs the lines between wife, mother, friend, and “fag hag.”
The directors of Strange Powers (the title comes from a Magnetic Fields song) managed, over the course of a 10-year filming process, to wangle unheard-of access to the famously private Merritt (a man whose songs, as one bandmate notes, manage to seem deeply personal without disclosing anything about the composer’s inner life). But once the directors get their cameras into Merritt’s cozy, book- and record-lined lair, they don’t seem quite sure what to do. The footage of Gonson and Merritt rehearsing and hashing out ideas is wonderful—a rare chance to witness a successful creative collaboration in action—but the documentary lacks dramatic shape, with interspersed interviews thrown in seemingly at random. Having famous non-musicians like Sarah Silverman or Neil Gaiman appear for 30 seconds, say something laudatory but vague, and then disappear for good gives the documentary a disconcertingly VH1-like feel.
If there had to be talking heads (and not simply, as I would prefer, more performances of whole songs), why not find musicians or producers who could frame the band’s oeuvre in specifically musical terms? What’s remarkable about Merritt’s songwriting is its plasticity: From song to song, he shape-shifts from folk balladeer to Tin Pan Alley craftsman to cabaret sophisticate, and he sings from the point of view of different characters, both women and men. If you came to this movie with no prior knowledge of his work, you might come away thinking, “Huh, that short dude writes a catchy tune,” but I’m not sure you’d get a sense of the scope of Merritt’s talent or of how far his songwriting lies outside the indie mainstream.
Fix and O’Hara devote too much screen time to a 2006 dustup between Merritt and some music bloggers who, in what the documentary suggests is deliberate bad faith, interpreted his praise for the song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” as an endorsement of the racist musical Song of the South. “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”-gate is too flimsy a scandal to hang even 15 minutes of a movie on. Much better are the moments when we get to eavesdrop as Merritt reads aloud from notebooks of rejected lyrics in his deadpan basso voice (“The clocks were singing horrible songs/ Doctors clinging to horrible tongs”) or squirms his way through an excruciating interview with the chipper host of an Atlanta morning show. As an interview subject, Merritt has something in common with Bob Dylan. Though less cryptic than Dylan, he shares that quality of seductive opacity, an ability to respond to questions at fascinating length while still seeming to hold back his own truth. I’m not sure it would be possible, or desirable, for a documentary to reveal any more about Stephin Merritt than this one does. But I would have loved to see one that revealed more about his music.