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.