Friday, February 11, 2011

STRANGE POWERS: Staff review by Dave Paiz

Those with a willingness to defy convention and elevate substance over style are rarely rewarded in American society. This is especially true as it pertains to music. How Stephin Merritt has managed to find success in the face of such depressingly bleak realities is the subject of Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields - a new documentary from Kerthy Fix and Gail O'Hara.

The Magnetic Fields first emerged in the late '80's, during the seismic shift that marked the end of the hair metal era, and the musical renaissance that produced bands like Jane's Addiction, Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Unlike the distortion-drenched, guitar-heavy grunge that dominated the airwaves at the time, The Magnetic Fields' minimalist synth-pop failed to garner much attention outside the realm of college radio. Despite such daunting odds, Merritt and The Magnetic Fields have quietly persevered, and, over the past two decades, become something of a minor cult phenomenon who now include the likes of Peter Gabriel, Neil Gaiman and Sarah Silverman among their biggest fans.

The film focuses on Merritt, longtime collaborator/bandmate/manager Claudia Gonson, and the symbiotic, if not codependent dynamic that lies at the heart of The Magnetic Fields' distinctive sound. Together with cellist Sam Davos and guitarist John Woo, Merritt and Gonson weave a meticulously crafted and constantly evolving web of sound around Merritt's deeply poetic and often cynical odes to love, heartbreak, and loss.

Unlike most music documentaries that reveal their subjects in great detail, and perhaps due to Merritt's guarded, reclusive nature, Strange Powers takes a more scattered, indirect approach in delineating what makes Merritt tick. Through scenes ranging from his cramped apartment in New York City where the Magnetic Fields have recorded much of their music, to the neighborhood gay bar where Merritt channels his lyrical muse, it's quite clear that he is a very private man who prefers to let his music do the talking, rather than engage in cheerfully pithy discussions about his creative process.

In an age increasingly defined by an endless array of plastic pop stars devoid of much substance or depth, Stephin Merritt is one of the few who has chosen the narrow path less traveled by. Strange Powers should appeal not only to longtime fans of The Magnetic Fields, but to music fans in general, and creative spirits everywhere who dream of marching to the beat of their own inner drum.

Review by Dave Paiz, Loft Cinema Facilities Manager and host of "Bat Country Radio" Saturdays from 2-4 a.m. on 91.3 FM KXCI.

STRANGE POWERS: STEPHIN MERRITT AND THE MAGNETIC FIELDS plays Friday, February 11th and Saturday, February 12th at 10:00PM at The Loft Cinema.

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