While watching Strange Powers: Stephin Merrit and the Magnetic Fields, I was reminded of the following Seinfeld moment:
RUSSELL: No stories? So, what is it?
GEORGE: What’d you do today?
RUSSELL: I got up and came to work.
GEORGE: There’s a show. That’s a show.
RUSSELL: (Confused) How is that a show?
JERRY: Well, uh, maybe something happens on the way to work.
GEORGE: No, no, no. Nothing happens.
JERRY: Well, something happens.
RUSSELL: Well, why am I watching it?
GEORGE: Because it’s on TV.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the Magnetic Fields. I credit them, and specifically Stephin Merrit, as a legitimate grandfather of this phenomenon sweepingly known as “indie rock”. They were college radio before indie rock was even suckling at its teet. All of the coolest kids I knew in high school were listening to 69 Love Songs back in the mid-late 90’s and the one uberhip friend I had (and am still friends with today) was telling me about them before they were on any music journalist’s radar.
Here is the problem I have with Strange Powers: it is a band documentary for the sake of being a band documentary, and just when you think it starts digging deeper into the more interesting personalities (Merrit himself comes across as dually witty and incredibly boring) and relationships (band manager and co-collaborator Claudia Gonson is Merrit’s surrogate mother slash non-sexual life partner), there is pullback into a stage performance, or a sudden pan to cable-access type staging around collections of the band’s CD’s. I continuously got this overwhelming sense that there were interesting stories to tell that the filmmakers hadn’t fully uncovered.
Best stories that they barely scratched the surface on:
- Sam Davol (cellist) and John Woo (banjo, guitar) are revealed to be something of the equivalent to session musicians in the band; Sam talks about this honestly for a bit, but ultimately holds back–I felt they didn’t do these gentlemen justice with their interviews.
- Stephin’s non-existent relationship with his folk singer father, Scott Fagan (whom to this day, he has never even met)
- Claudia and Stephin’s relationship is interesting in that they have been close friends since high school, but unfortunately even their bickering is dull
- Extraordinarily ordinary concert footage
- Incorporation of the fact that Merrit is gay – when the only “significant other” featured can only add that “when you’re in a relationship with Stephin you’re in a relationship with Claudia” (cue the Will & Grace theme song), why even feature it?
- Literal cataloging of the creative musical process — as fun as it sounds to watch brilliant musicians jot down notes and lyrics, I’d rate it as being about as engaging as watching Chia seeds sprout (with the seeds marginally winning)
Overall, I’d say that without a keen eye for creative research, a documentary about someone as private as Merrit is pointless. This is not to say that there weren’t intriguing stories that the filmmakers told, most notably about the accusations against Stephin being a “pretentious racist cracker” and some priceless footage captured on AM Atlanta in which the cheery male host attempts to engage him only to elicit mildly funny one-word answers.
Stephin Merrit may be many things: Brilliant wordsmith, college radio hero, NYC icon, well-read and educated, charmingly depressing, but at the end of the day, a documentary subject who is unwilling to open the doors to a director is better left unprodded.