Friday, March 07, 2014

Magnetic Fields, "Strange Powers" (documentary)

I finally saw this Magnetic Fields documentary that was released a little over three years ago.  The reviews were generally quite positive, but I feel that was mainly out of respect for Stephin Merritt's body of work. I didn't get a "this is a must see doc" vibe from anyone. My own views are a bit more negative, out of the reviews I read, I identify most strongly with Mike Hale's take in the NYT.

My main issue is that I don't particularly understand for whom this documentary was made.  It's not for the casual music fan who's never heard of the Magnetic Fields, because the documentary makes almost no effort to explain what makes their songs so great or what makes their fanbase tick (save for the odd comment by a Peter Gabriel or Sarah Silverman).  It's not for the hardcore fan who's looking to peek behind the curtain, because all the principals (especially Merritt) are a bit too aloof and cynical to let their guard down.

There are a number of memorable moments in the film.  Seeing the band record songs in Stephin's chaotic mess of an apartment is a treat.  In some sense it de-glamourizes the songs but that's more than compensated by the way the recording humanizes the people involved. I couldn't help but smile at the way Stephin completely recreated the atmosphere of his New York studio apartment when he moved to Los Angeles at the end of the film.

Kudos to Sasha Frere-Jones for appearing on camera to say "mea culpa" for the racism allegations from 2006.

However, deep insights into the minds of band members are rare.  Sam Davol's admission that he isn't friends with Merritt -- even after twenty years playing in bands together -- was a refreshing and fairly shocking admission for any band documentary, especially one like this that is 99% feel good content.  He simply feels that it's best for band chemistry if the members know how keep an appropriate distance from each other.  This was also the take-home message behind the film's most poignant moment.  After Stephin's move to LA, we see Claudia Gonson looking lonely in NY, clearly missing her best friend like crazy but trying to be supportive of the change because she knows that it's best for Merritt.

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