My musical tastes were and still are fairly catholic, despite having escaped the South with, ahem, a less pronounced and geographically ingrained appreciation for country music than one might suspect. Hip-hop, pop, classic rock, folk, jazz and blues, crooners in the vein of Frank Sinatra, mid-’90s college radio staples like Superchunk, Matthew Sweet and Dillon Fence, even classical music — all found welcome home on mix tapes and CDs in my music collection, long before the days of MP3 players. Still, I for some reason hadn’t heard of the Magnetic Fields — or at the very least they hadn’t purchased a permanent space in my consciousness — when a friend gave me a copy of 69 Love Songs, the group’s three-CD magnum opus, a couple years after its 1999 release.
Quickly, I was snake-bitten by the swooning, ambitious, rangy material — full of mordant humor, literate, character-rooted lyricism and at times unexpectedly chirpy, bouncy arrangements — and I read up on intellectual frontman Stephin Merritt’s talents and background, as well as his assumed dourness. Co-directed by Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara, the documentary Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields delves further into the veritable modern-day Cole Porter, the man behind the band who has inspired such cultish devotion amongst a small and diverse group, while also remaining virtually anonymous to the public at large.
A writer can certainly appreciate Merritt’s adroitness with sardonic prose (and many do), but his gift with a startling array of musical styles and genres is often overlooked, if only because his deep, melancholy baritone seems to coat almost everything in distancing tones, like a thick layer of bitter honey. Strange Powers purports to get to the bottom of Merritt’s “process” (he claims to write tunes while sitting in gay clubs listening to thumping disco and techno music, which he doesn’t particularly like, for six or eight hours at a time), but it’s hard to always take such revelations seriously when Merritt acknowledges a penchant for exaggeration and falsehood, or says to pianist/manager Claudia Golson at one point while working on a tune, “I’m not sure that’s going to fit with the expressionless Bresson character that I’m doing.”
Likewise, while the movie delves heartily into his relationships with both Golson, who he met during their teenage years, and his hippie mom (Merritt recalls her trying to fix a faulty radiator by rubbing a green banana on it), filmmakers Fix and O’Hara mostly steer clear of why Merritt never particularly got to know his biological father Scott Fagan, an island-influenced pop-rock troubadour. While it may not seem particularly immediately germane to the Magnetic Fields, there is certainly an interesting case to be made for both nature-nurture talent, and Merritt’s compositional songbook serving as a kind of extended response to his childhood.
Mostly, though, even though the creation of 69 Love Songs gets oddly short shrift, Strange Powers is a warm, loving look at a unique talent, and something that fans of the Magnetic Fields and neophytes alike appreciate as a peek behind the creative curtain. A diverse roster of fellow artists like Daniel Handler, Peter Gabriel, Sarah Silverman and Neil Gaiman pop up to
offer their thoughts on Merritt’s work — as do guitarist John Woo and cellist Sam Davol, Fields mates who maintain a respectful but almost strictly working relationship with their band leader — but the heart of the movie is undeniably Merritt’s friendship with Golson, who is in many ways his surrogate caretaker. Strange Powers describes the unique hold of Merritt’s music, but it also showcases how amazing artists can sometimes be sort of bad at life. A tip of the cap, then, to Golson, a warmhearted enabler. (Variance Films, unrated, 85 minutes)