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Strange Powers: Genius on Film

With his band The Magnetic Fields, Stephin Merritt has been writing new American song standards that you will listen to in 100 years, and Strange Powers directors Kerthy Fix and Gail O'Hara get behind his famously cranky persona.

strange powers


Stephin Merritt is a hilariously unhappy little man in a hat who spends all day sitting in a gay bar, writing songs. He is also, quite possibly, a songwriting genius; able to bring the swooning melody and lyrical bite of a Cole Porter or Irving Berlin, updating it with a modern, arch sensibility that is completely Merritt's own. He has been playing with his band, The Magnetic Fields, and more importantly, his main collaborator/longtime best friend Claudia Gonson, for nearly twenty years now, and their shining artistic statement (so far) has been the instant classic album 69 Love Songs (1999), a three disc epic of sixty-nine brilliant songs about love, spanning the range of life, from heartbreak to ecstacy, with song titles like "Papa Was a Rodeo," "Punk Love," "Absolutely Cuckoo," "Your Love is Like Jazz," "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side," and much, much more.



And the thing is, for the past twenty years, The Magnetic Fields have been a major indie rock band, releasing albums on Merge Records, touring every two years, but never really reaching the sort of mainstream saturation that your average flavor-of-the-week pop star or svengali achieves in a month.


That combination of genius and obscurity makes Merritt the perfect cult subject for a documentary, and even if you don't know anything about his wonderful output (frankly, this article could just be filled with Merritt bon mots, in life and songwriting), Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields is a ten-years-in-the-making portrait of one of America's greatest songwriters. Merritt has never been much for interviews (although he plays along, prickly and game-for-it, in this recent New York Magazine Vulture Transcript), and documentarians Kerthy Fix and Gail O'Hara get wonderful access to Merritt, Gonson, and their musical cohorts, showing the world a rare portrait of some of the things that make up his brilliant mind, from his childhood running around a punk Harvard Square in Cambridge, to his decision to head out of his spiritual home, New York, in a move to Los Angeles. Tribeca talked with Fix about how this documentary came about.


Tribeca: Do you think Stephin is a genius?


Kerthy Fix: I personally would say that. I think in 100 years people will cite his songs along with people like Willie Nelson and Bruce Springsteen because they say something about our era where we are both ironically distant and sentimentally wallowing in our emotional displays. I think his songs do that quite well.


Tribeca: One theme in the movie is that Stephin's a hard interview, but you had ten years of access to him and the band. How did that come about?


Kerthy Fix: I think we just kind of became part of the gang. He was just very generous and easygoing. The repuration is something that comes when, like what you and I are doing right now, you got 15 minutes and you have to follow a certain routine. Stephin is not so great at plugging in instantly. He probably spent the last four hours reading Evelyn Waugh in his hotel room. When we were in London last week, he bought some huge history of the record label Rough Trade, and he told me that he ended up reading that book last night, and "you should make a movie about The Raincoats." He's a true intellectual, and I don't know many true intellectuals.


Tribeca: How did you get involved in the film?


Kerthy Fix: It started wtih Gail O'Hara, the other director. When Claudia and Stephin moved to New York, she hired Stephin to do copy editing for Time Out New York, which he's really good at. Gail says they were sitting around waiting for writers to turn in their material and they'd go wander around the Flatiron building and take photos. I think that was the basis. Gail became a really big fan and champion. She had this division of trust and was a really good friend.


[Gail and I] knew each other from college. When I moved to New York, I had been making movies for awhile. About that time Gail moved to the UK, and we both had a lunch with Stephin and Claudia and sort of introduced the idea of "Kerthy's going to shoot with you." We thought we'd come away with signed release forms, but everything devolved—a loud restaurant, we had to go very fast, but I had this weird little certainty that if i sticked around with these people and was really patient, it's going to work out—they let me go to recording sessions and tours and 300 hours later, we had something. Filming, you're nervous because you don't know if you have a film yet. Stephin, in an annoying way, was not doing anything over dramatic that we could structure a film around, he just kept very solidly writing music each and every day. We needed to structure the film around how his mind works.


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Tribeca: How did you approach the recording of 69 Love Songs?


Kerthy Fix: We had some footage of that period, but [Gail] had a career as a journalist and it wasn't possible for her to give up everything and shoot it. It was also hard to see in the moment how much of a watershed record it would be. I think people cite that recording, like if you start to date someone, and you want to make a mixtape, there's going to be some songs on there. That was tough, structurally, with the film. If we started earlier, that would be the penultimate moment, but that's sort of the starting point. You have to address it. I was sort of aiming for a general viewer, but you don't want the feeling in the middle of the film—oh, the best part's over—that was really tricky in the middle of the film.


Tribeca: What are you up to next?


Kerthy Fix: Right after we finished editing this film, I did a really fast production on this film, Le Tigre on Tour, and I think Oscilloscope is going to officially release it in the spring. Another film I produced, Who Does She Think She Is, I helped devise a strategy for independent distribution. We opened in New York the week the economic downturn blew up and we really had to scramble. It's also a film that features five mother artists and it's looking at the cultural and social impacts of why mothering and nurturing are excluded from art—they're not seen as serious arts. It also features greater issues with how we live—how nurturing is not valued—it's looking at all these other issues and believe me, it's a hard sell. We've had a great response, but it's taken two years to really get it out.


The fact that we have a theatrical run [for Strange Powers] is due to the fact that Dylan Marchetti at Variance Films is a huge fan of the film and one of those rare people, who, what he does is an art, and he does it for the love of it and the pleasure of it. He loves what he does. We're in this time where you have to be on Facebook all the time, and you have to create a community, which is easier for this film because we have a band. I don't know where that's going—I don't know how filmmakers can make a living. The current economic structure is untenable. Maybe in ten years we'll look on it as "oh, that was a crazy time!" I don't know, it will be interesting—is the hour and a half feature, going to be obscure, will it be something like opera?


Tribeca: How would you sell this film to people who haven't heard of Stephin Merrit and The Magnetic Fields?


Kerthy Fix: If you want to watch a story about a lovable eccentric, basically through his own wit and genius, forcing the world to come around to his terms, you can take pleasure in that. If you want to watch the process of art being made in collaboration, with all the bickering and messiness that implies, than this is the film for you.



Strange Powers: Stephin Meritt and The Magnetic Fields opens at Film Forum on Wednesday, October 27. Merritt will be djing the Stephin Merritt & Magnetic Fields Exhibition Opening Reception at Other Music on Thursday, October 28 from 5:00 - 7:00 pm.


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