Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields -- Film Review

This portrait of the famed indie rock composer-musician is for fans only.

The widely heralded musical auteur deserves a more insightful documentary treatment than the one afforded in "Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields."

Co-directed by Kerthy Fix and Gail O'Hara, who bear no small relationship to their subject (O'Hara was Merritt's editor while he worked as a music critic for Time Out New York), the film, receiving its U.S. theatrical premiere at New York's Film Forum, is an affectionate but ultimately less than scintillating portrait of the creator of such modern classics as "69 Love Songs."

Partly the problem is the taciturn Merritt, who emerges as a droll eccentric proudly displaying his collections, including ukuleles and musical kitsch (the Ethel Merman disco album), and who wanders the streets of the West Village with his pet Chihuahua, Irving Berlin.

The film dutifully recounts the singer-songwriter's rise from total obscurity to near obscurity, concentrating on his critical breakthrough with his 1999 three-disc magnum opus.

Among the incidents detailed is the brouhaha that occurred several years ago when a New Yorker music critic accused Merritt of being racist because of -- get this -- his fondness for the song "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" from Disney's animated film Song of the South. (The embarrassed writer now admits, "I wish I had done things differently.")

Far more interesting is the film's depiction of the loving if frequently strained relationship between Merritt and his collaborator-manager Claudia Gonson, whose comments provide more insight into Merritt than the musician himself.

As per usual with these sorts of docs, tribute is paid to the subject by a gallery of celebrities including Peter Gabriel, author Neil Gaiman and a surprisingly subdued Sarah Silverman.

A final scroll during the credits reveals that Merritt, who has since moved to the West Coast, has the ambition of "writing 100 Hollywood musicals." Let's hope he succeeds.

Opened: Wednesday, Oct. 27 (Variance)
Directors: Kerthy Fix, Gail O'Hara
Producers: Kerty Fix, Gail O'Hara, Alan Oxman
Executive producers: Paul Kloss, Kerthy Fix, Pamela Tanner Boll
Directors of photography: Paul Kloss, Kerthy Fix
Editor: Sarah Devorkin
No rating, 85 minutes

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