In 2006, I installed Last.fm’s music cataloguing software. I will explain why this is relevant to a review of Strange Powers: Stephen Merritt and the Magnetic Fields which is screening at the annual Vancouver International Film Festival. Last.fm’s software is designed to monitor and keep track of records of the music you’ve listened to.
I installed this software for the purposes of self-reflection and a love of statistical data. It has not particularly disappointed me, but the primary reason I am bringing this up is that it quickly became apparent that I listen to the Magnetic Fields more than any other band.
The Magnetic Fields are a prolific band that started in the late ‘80s and proceeded to release an album every few years. They consist of their leader Stephen Merritt, who is the primary focus of Strange Powers and the leader of the group; Claudia Gonson, who manages the band, acts as Merritt’s best friend/platonic life partner, plays piano and sings; John Woo (no relation to the Hong Kong action movie director) who plays guitar, banjo and mandolin; and Sam Davol who plays cello. Their music, if you are not already familiar, is perhaps best described as art pop. I use this description even though Merritt specifically takes issue with it in the documentary because there is really no other way to describe his music simply.*
Anyhow, when I installed Last.fm, the deep truth I learned about myself was that when I am wallowing the music I usually the music I wallow in is the Magnetic Fields. When times are good I listen to lots of different types of music, but when I am wallowing there is no finer music for a breakup or bout of depression than the Magnetic Fields. Their groundbreaking three-disc 69 Love Songs is probably best, but they are all excellent for this purpose. What Last.fm taught me was that despite what I thought at the time, the Magnetic Fields were my favourite band, or at least they were the band I listened to the most.
I tell you all this so that you understand the context when I say that Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara’s Strange Powers is an excellent movie.
Though the movie boasts such celebrities as Peter Gabriel and Sarah Silverman commenting on their love for Stephen Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, it’s Merritt himself who is the deserved focus of Strange Powers. The film centers around his life, his past, his songs and his relationships, and paints him as an enigmatic and intriguing performer who can be both charming and standoffish.
It is probably his prickly personality that necessitated the ten years Fix and O’Hara spent shooting this documentary. The movie paints a portrait of a man who does not easily open up in social situations and does an excellent job of showing how his career has been hampered by his eccentricities. He’s had difficulties with labels and A&R reps who think that his songwriting ability can translate into a top 40 hit, but ultimately found that his music is too academic or arty to appeal to the mainstream. He even refused to play the first Magnetic Fields show—simply sitting in a corner while Gonson played with another early member of the band. On the other hand, you also see how his eccentricities have aided him by helping him cultivate a fan base that revels in his odd experimentations with pop music.
The most appealing part of the movie is really for the devoted fan. In it you get to see a lot of the Magnetic Fields songwriting process: Merritt’s unfinished notes with lyrics that will eventually be songs, Merritt introducing Gonson to the metre of “In an Operetta,” Merritt giving direction in studio to how they should be playing songs on Distortion (Woo uses a coin to strum the guitar so it sounds less natural).
It’s fascinating, especially if you know all the songs, which tie the whole movie together, from the half-formed ideas that eventually become familiar studio and live versions.
Though knowledgeable fans will get the most out of this movie, it will still be interesting to those who are unfamiliar; Merritt is a quirky character who provides a weird enough persona throughout the movie to keep newcomers to the Magnetic Fields curious and the music that plays over top of the film is regular and well placed.
If you are a fan of the Magnetic Fields, make an effort to see this movie, and if you want to bring a friend along who has never heard of them, don’t worry about whether they’ll be bored to tears while you geek out. They’ll enjoy themselves.