You know that feeling when you’re watching something in a movie like a speech or some live music, and you’re so caught up in it that at the end you go to clap? And then you remember it’s just a movie, that they wouldn’t hear you clapping? I got that feeling roughly fifteen minutes throughout the course of Strange Powers’ less than two hour duration. Every time we were treated to some video of a Magnetic Fields’ live performance, and every time Stephen Merritt came out with one of his deliriously cantankerous sound bites (which, as we all know, he has in abundant supply). It’s a fantastic film.
For fans of the Magnetic Fields, this is a rare and precious insight into one of America’s most talented and reclusive song writers. Well researched, observant and – most importantly – giving fans a more balanced perspective than the ‘Stephen Merritt doesn’t like to be interviewed and therefore acts like pretentious arse hole in interviews’ character we see in the press. And this is what I liked most about it: a large majority of the Magnetic Fields’ publicity revolves around Stephen Merritt’s reaction to being forced to do something he doesn’t like (interviews) with people he doesn’t trust (journalists). Strange Powers lets the audience see Merritt reacting to things he does like (music, his friends, his dog, sandwiches, etc.) with people he trusts (Claudia Gonson, his mother, his band mates). And we’re thankfully exposed to his funny, intelligent, kind, shy persona as opposed to his “fuck off, I’m a genius” persona.
If you’re not terribly familiar with Merritt’s ouvre, go and see it anyway. The viewer is given plenty of background information and explanations of Stephen Merritt and Claudia Gonson’s relationship and work, then moved almost seamlessly through the band’s formation and early releases, the recording and huge success of their classic album 69 Love Songs, to their latest album and Merritt’s eventual decamping from New York to the sunnier climes of Los Angeles. It’s a funny and beautiful documentary, even if you’ve never heard of the Magnetic Fields, and a great way to discover your new favourite band.
Including stories and personal commentary by people like his ex-boss from the New York Times, that chick from Sleater Kinney, the guy who wrote those Lemony Snickett books, and, of course, plenty of insight from Merritt’s long time collaborator and Magnetic Fields manager, Claudia Gonson, directors Gail O’Hara and Kerthy Fix have produced a rich and engaging piece of cinema. It’s only on at the Chauvel until the seventh of August so if you want to see it, you better get your skates on.