Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields
‘Strange Powers’ only fitfully shows off Merritt’s magnetism
The whiff of missed opportunities hangs over “Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields.’’ An engagingly pokey documentary portrait of the cult singer-songwriter and his circle of musician friends, the movie’s as rambling as Merritt’s songs are focused, as expansive as his music is miniaturist. In inviting us along to peek into the life, filmmakers Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara don’t give us quite enough about the art.
Instead, “Strange Powers’’ assumes you’re already a member of the club — that you probably came to the Magnetic Fields through the band’s 1999 breakthrough, the critically acclaimed three-disc epic, “69 Love Songs,’’ that you’ve followed along through subsequent recordings, that you treasure Merritt’s deadpan bass voice and drolly literate sensibilities. The fan base spans punky teenagers and graying NPR listeners — anyone, really, with the skill set to appreciate a song called “The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be.’’
The documentary shuttles back and forth through the various chapters of Merritt’s life, using photos and grainy performance videos to show how a dour, shy, gay Reagan-era kid morphed into a dour, shy, gay Cole Porter for the new millennium. Famous friends are brought on to testify: art-rocker Peter Gabriel, author Daniel “Lemony Snicket’’ Handler, the latter an occasional band member himself. Merritt shows us his collection of ukuleles and mopes about like an adorable Chelsea Eeyore.
The (sort of) silent partner in his career is Claudia Gonson, a singer, multi-instrumentalist, band manager, mother hen, and noodge. By far the freshest sequences in “Strange Powers’’ bring Gonson into the spotlight and let us see a fractious, affectionate creative marriage between two best buds that goes back decades. As the movie pans their ’80s teen memorabilia, you get the sense that Andie and Duckie from “Pretty in Pink’’ made it into the 2000s, and all Duckie had to do was come out of the closet.
Yet there’s a lot about that friendship that goes unsaid — prickly emotions and a few old bruises under the surface. Toward the end of “Strange Powers,’’ Merritt suddenly relocates from Manhattan to Los Angeles, stranding Gonson back East. She makes the best of the separation, but it’s clear she’s hurt and confused by his decision. The filmmakers glance and look away.
The greater sin is that they do the same to the music, and to the mind that brings it forth. How does Stephin Merritt write a song as funny as “I Wish I Had an Evil Twin,’’ as clever as “Love Is Like a Bottle of Gin,’’ as perfect as “The Book of Love’’? Despite a title that promises mystery and revelation, “Strange Powers’’ isn’t all that interested. It’s happy to just hang out.