The Magnetic Fields are an eclectic but fairly obscure American indie rock band that has been recording for nearly twenty years. While not a household name, they have a fairly devoted following, and many musicians, such as Peter Gabriel, count leader Stephin Merritt as one of the great contemporary American songwriters. In Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, directors Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara follow the band for 10 years to get an understanding of Merritt and his songwriting technique, how the band makes their music, and the relationship between Merritt and his longtime collaborator and manager, Claudia Gonson. Generally, any documentary about an artist is either going to be a labour of love or an exposé. This film certainly falls into the former category, particularly considering the time and care used to make it. Fix and O’Hara are given intimate access to Merritt’s creative process. They film him as he writes song lyrics, and as he goes through his mountains of notebooks of used and rejected songs; they get close-ups of Merritt and Gonson are they rehearse and playfully argue over intro beats and timing, and the strange beauty of a folk-rock band that includes the cello as a major instrument. And not just cellos: frog-callers, tin cans on strings, and other homemade instruments make their way into the Magnetic Fields sound.
Merritt has often been referred to as a curmudgeon, which may be true, but if so, that is part of what makes his music critically acclaimed. Several years ago, Merritt was accused of being a racist, first for not including enough songs by black artists on his 100 favourite songs of the 20th century, the by allegedly referring to Disney’s Song of the South as a brilliant film (a clip was shown of this statement, in which Merritt, while admitting to loving the song “Zippity Doo Dah”, quite clearly has no love for the film.) But the film, in its long-term involvement with Merritt, is asking artistic questions: how much can we relate a person’s art to their personality? Are Merritt’s songs analogous to his life, or are they beautiful imaginings? Should we always equate an artist’s personality with their work? Can we dislike the person and still love their work? And is it possible for artists such as Merritt and Gonson to work together for so long without breaking up? Though perhaps the lack of a romantic component in their relationship helps. In filming Merritt over such a long period of time, some barriers to his misanthropic ways come down, but some don’t. But most artists are better with a little mystery surrounding them.