On Friday night, I went to my first ever Hot Docs screening. Yes, I had never before been to Hot Docs after living in Toronto(ish) for 28 years. How long? 28 years.1 I lost my Hot Docs virginity to Strange Powers, a film about Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields. For those who don’t know who Stephin Merritt is, or who the Magnetic Fields are, you’re obviously new to my blog, and my life.2 The Magnetic Fields are one of the most ambitious pop artists who are best known for their monumentous3 triple album project 69 Love Songs. Stephin Merritt is the band’s songwriter, leader, visionary, and in all honesty, it’s only member.4
The filmmakers said that they wanted to present a portrait of an artist, and I think they achieved this. They show Merritt’s humour, and his charm, while also show the immensely private man, who hides from fame. They touch on his notoriety as being a “difficult interview,” while also discuss his strange relationship with drummer/pianist/manager/fag hag Claudia Gonson.
The film was shot over ten years, which I assume dates it to just after the release of 69 Love Songs. It ends before the recording and release of their latest record, Realism. In those years between the band released a paltry two albums, i & Distortion. However, Merritt also released The Tragic Treasury by The Gothic Archies, I’m Lonely (And I Love It) and Eternal Youth by Future Bible Heroes. Merritt’s also provided the soundtrack to two films Pieces of April and Eban and Charley, and released a compilation of songs from the scores of three Chen Shi-Zheng musicals, The Orphan of Zhao, My Life as a Fairy Tale, and Peach Blossom Fan. Well, that’s a productive decade. Yet oddly, here’s a documentary in which the only time the words “Gothic Archies” is ever heard is never explained, and his musicals and soundtracks aren’t mentioned. During the film, they speak with Chris Ewen, he’s presented as Merritt’s ex-boyfriend5 but is given a caption as “Future Bible Heroes.” The film never explains what a Future Bible Hero is, nor does it attempt to. This is a huge amount of artistic output to completely ignore.
The film lacks a timeline or narrative, and so the audience doesn’t get a sense of the history of the band. Nor what happened over that ten years of filming. Other than recording, touring, and Stephin moving to LA. I think because of this, the audience must be initiated into the cult-of-Stephin beforehand to get much out of this film.
As someone who is, I can tell you, it shows an interesting portrayal of Merritt, but probably best to start with a listen to 69 Love Songs.