SXSW Film '10 — Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields

Stephin Merritt seems like a pretty intense guy. At least that’s the impression I got of the uber-talented musician after watching Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields.

The documentary, shot over the course of ten years by directors Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara, gives fans of the Magnetic Fields an inside glimpse at one of the most prolific (and talented) songwriters of today’s generation: Stephin Merritt.

Merritt is the frontman for the Magnetic Fields, among other bands. With a somber voice and lyrics marinated in the richest of romances, Merritt and his band have found themselves a devoted, if niche, following.

Strange Powers, with its captivating look at the sometimes sour, always passionate Merritt, should hopefully build the bands’ fanbase.

The documentary follows Merritt throughout the course of his nearly 20-year career — including the moments where he first began to develop the sound that would soon become his trademark.

The film follows the band as they record music, providing additional framework with interviews and archival footage.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the intense friendship between Merritt and his bandmate Claudia Gonson, a woman who sometimes acts like a wife to the gay songwriter.

As Merritt moves from New York to Los Angeles, the film captures the anxiousness of Gonson as she realizes that the relationship that has most defined her life and given her purpose over the last twenty years is being tested by a undeniable distance.

Interviews with friends and peers including authors Neil Gaiman and Daniel Handler and musician Peter Gabriel help to paint a portrait of a man whose sometimes acerbic disposition makes him hard to approach — but whose soul contains the modern day reincarnation of Cole Porter.

Not just a video blowjob to a talented musician, though, the documentary chronicles some of the warts in Merritt’s career — including accusations of racism and an aloof detachment with his own bandmates.

The documentary is a must-see for any fans of the Magnetic Fields (and really, if you’ve had the opportunity to listen to the band’s music — you should be a fan) but is also highly recommended to Magnetic Field novices. A well-put together film, Strange Fields is a fascinating portrait of a truly talented man.

Category: 24 Beats Per Second
Director: Kerthy Fix & Gail O’Hara
Remaining Showtimes at SXSW: Saturday, March 20 at 7:45 PM at Alamo Ritz

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The South by Southwest film festival will be held in Austin from March 12 through the 20th. For more information about attending the festival and the films being shown, visit