Strange Powers: Stephen Merritt and Magnetic Fields
Directed by Kerthy Fix and Gail O'Hara
Kerthy Fix and Gail O'Hara begin their documentary with an offscreen voice asking Stephin Merritt, in off-center close-up, what he's reading; he pauses for an awful long time before telling the filmmakers, in that gravelly, deft, deflecting baritone mumble of his, that he's trying to come with something to tell them instead of the truth (what he offers up is almost too perfect: a transgender autobiography, Dr. Seuss). The paradox of the film is access: it's been in the works for so long that some of its footage qualifies as archival—the present-tense component stretches from the making of I through the tour for Distortion—but Merritt remains guarded, his side projects and personal life encapsulated in two brief interview clips from Future Bible Hero and former boyfriend Chris Ewen. When Merritt says that if he was ever to meet his dad, it'd have to be on Oprah, it's like his lyrics: self-exposure sequestered by elegant classical pop structures and draped in sardonic wit. But Fix and O'Hara at least make the Chinese Wall between life and work porous, through witty musical segues (the Oprah family reunion one-liner into "Papa Was a Rodeo") and by paying attention to his reluctant dependence on his loyal bandmates, especially collaborator/manager/handler/childhood friend/self-described "fag hag" Claudia Gonson, who seems selfless in a way Merritt doesn't appear entirely comfortable with.
Too much of these 85 minutes are spent on appeal-widening celebrity testimonials from the likes of Peter Gabriel and Sarah Silverman (you're already in the theater, aren't you?) and in rehashing the Sasha Frere-Jones-incited, Jessica Hopper-abetted Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah-oh-god-just-kill-me-gate of 2006, at the expense of more on pre-69 Love Songs Fields (Fix and O'Hara linger in the 90s just long enough to inspire weird and personal varieties of nostalgia, covering the band's evolution into indie mainstays and Merritt's move here, where he worked for O'Hara at Time Out New York). But the many live performances, varied from Merritt's home-recording tinkering (via both esoteric percussion and guest vocalists), are a gift (they generally last at least a verse and chorus), as are the glimpses into Merritt's life's worth of notebooks, where he lays out formal challenges to his songwriting prowess, like the matter-of-fact manifesto genesis of 69 Love Songs.
Opens October 27 at Film Forum