Stephin Merritt, bard of the gay bars, writes unforgettable songs and speaks in uncompromising aphorisms. He’s a notoriously “difficult” interview—because every arts journalist not so secretly yearns to be validated by a subject, and he can’t be bothered—and Strange Powers, the new documentary about Merritt and his band the Magnetic Fields, is a Child’s Garden of Caustic Observations. “That’s how I feel about other people’s records,” he says, after dismissing most of 1970s cinema as ugly faux verite. “I think they’re emphasizing convention over beauty or interest, and I’m usually emphasizing interest and beauty over convention.”
The film, directed by Kerthy Fix and recent Portland transplant Gail O’Hara, would probably fall just short of Merritt’s standards: Conventionally structured, Strange Powers neatly consolidates 11 years of Fields notes (mostly the tale of Merritt leaning on the ballast of keyboardist/saint Claudia Gonson) but hints at music as a kind of firefly jar, collecting feelings until they don’t glow as brightly. It also contains a priceless scene of Merritt cradling the Chihuahua he named after Irving Berlin and chuckling over his lyric notebooks, which include the discarded gender-bending line, “Come on my tits you hot Latin bitch.” The ridiculous and the sublime are in this moment—as in the montage of the gloomiest songwriter in the world recovering from accusations of racism by bicycling around New York to the tune of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.”
Earlier this week, WW spoke to co-director O’Hara, who used to edit Merritt’s rock criticism at Spin.
WW: There ought to be some kind of post-traumatic stress counseling for people who’ve interviewed Stephin Merritt. What do you think is so polarizing about him?
Gail O’Hara: I think he’s maybe intellectually threatening. He’s unashamed to say whatever he wants to say. I think he’s a little like Morrissey in that way—people respond really dramatically. Like in the movie, saying, “I’ve never recorded hip-hop because it’s too boring. ” You could make a whole movie about that comment. But it’s also that he embraces stuff like standards and show tunes that rock critics don’t tend to respect a lot. It’s not exactly cool,
In the film, you show Stephin and Claudia singing “Yeah! Oh Yeah!” and the song’s masochism seems to be an oblique commentary on their relationship.
A huge part of making the film was showing Claudia’s role in all of this. Stephin’s really talented, obviously, but without her I don’t think it would work.… She’s the social butterfly when he’s running out the back door to try to hide from people. Their relationship is fascinating: Significant others, boyfriends, girlfriends come and go, but that’s the relationship of their life. Although she did just have a baby [in August], so we’ll see what happens now.
I can’t imagine adding a baby to that mix.
Tell me about it! Everyone’s dying to know how Stephin reacts to it. I think there’s probably going to be some jealousy there.