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Movie review: 'Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields'

Never heard of the singer-songwriter? After seeing this engaging documentary, you'll likely become a huge fan of his exceptional music.

November 05, 2010|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic

The way it goes with singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt is that you are either wild about his music or you've never heard of him. A new documentary called "Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields" is likely to move people from the second category into the first.

Though he has somewhat of a reputation for being a grumpy iconoclast, Merritt sat still for a filmmaking process by Gail O'Hara and Kerthy Fix that lasted 300 hours spread over 11 years. Clearly, the directors have to be Merritt advocates to hang in there that long, but the film that resulted has elements that keep it from being simply a fan's notes.

For one thing, there's a generous sampling of Merritt's exceptional music, including familiar songs such as "Papa Was a Rodeo" and "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side." Not only are Merritt's compositions gorgeously melodic, but his lyrics also feature the kind of adroit use of language that led Time Out New York to call him the " Cole Porter of his generation."

Merritt does his recording in his heroically cluttered New York apartment, filled with all kinds of strange and wonderful instruments (as well as a world-class collection of ukuleles), and seeing him collaborate with his three bandmates provides a sympathetic portrait of how musical artists go about their work.

Especially intense is Merritt's relationship with Claudia Gonson, the Magnetic Fields' pianist and manager as well as a close friend since high school. Though they inevitably bicker with each other, Gonson provides an invaluable ballast to the group, which had its biggest commercial success with the 1999 album "69 Love Songs."

"Strange Powers" does of course provide glimpses of Merritt himself, a sardonic perfectionist who says he prefers to write in dark gay bars with thumping disco music in the background and who comes up with song titles such as "The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be" and lines such as "sing me the kind of song you hear in an operetta."

Though much of "Strange Powers" might be expected, two elements in it are not. One is an examination of the preposterous, Internet-fueled controversy Merritt got into in 2006 over bogus accusations that he was a racist, and the other is his surprising decision to move to Los Angeles.

Merritt says the move was motivated by a desire to do more movie soundtracks. Given that his score for the underrated "Pieces of April" expanded his fan base, perhaps his relocation, plus this film, will get his music into many more.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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