Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and Magnetic Fields

Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and Magnetic Fields is a great documentary for fans of the band but also for those who are not familiar with Stephin and his music. I had never been introduced to Magnetic Fields; their songs of love, heartbreak, romance and sarcasm before watching this documentary and it definitely turned me into a fan.

Stephin, singer and songwriter of Magnetic Fields, is very much like his music: sarcastic, dark humoured and at times funny. It’s apparent that he doesn’t seem to have much to say in front of the camera. You get to see that he’s rather uncomfortable being filmed, never really at ease that anyone would want to document him at all; which makes viewers like me wanting to know what is really going on inside his head.

Apparently the documentary was filmed over a 10 year span which you don’t really know while watching the film. It chronicles the band’s history, going back to the 80’s, through the 90’s and up until the end of the documentary which I believe is 2008. It shows the touching relationship dynamics between Stephin and Claudia Gonson who is Magnetic Fields pianist and manager. They have been friends for years and at times fight like an old married couple which is hilarious. The rest of the band, (John Woo and Sam Davol) are seen throughout the doc, their roles in this band are obvious.

Stephin is most definitely the driving force behind Magnetic Fields, he is the gifted songwriter and the one who comes up with most of the memorable melodies. He is indeed fascinating but at times his monotone mumbling (sometimes there are subtitles) seems pretentious and his dry wit a little egotistic. His band mate Sam even mentions in the doc that he isn’t friends with Stephin. Which isn’t suprising because he does seem like a hard person to be friends with. But maybe I’ve just misunderstood this complicated musical genius, but one thing is for certain is that you don’t really get to know Stephin all that much in the end. Be it that he’s just quiet or an extremely private I’m not sure.

The movement of the doc is slow but surprisingly it never gets boring. For one the music is good and again I became transfixed with Stephin. The only real drama in the film is when the filmmakers touch upon an incident that happened in 2004 when a critic called Stephin a racist for having few black artists on a list of his favourite 100 songs of all time. This of course does not make one a racist so the allegations are obviously ridiculous and the drama quickly dissolves into nothing.

If you are a fan of Magnetic Fields or just interested in watching good music documentaries I would definitely recommend Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and Magnetic Fields.

Playing during the Vancouver International Film Festival on Saturday October 2nd at 9:45pm at Empire Granville and Sunday October 10th at 11:00am at the Vancity City.

Check out the VIFF website at


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