To close out the month of February, SF360 Film+Club and Noise Pop brought us a brilliant sneak preview of Strange Powers, a documentary about the iconic and moderately obscure band the Magnetic Fields and their intensely private frontman Stephin Merritt.
The sold out screening at the Mezzanine was set up in conjunction with the Magnetic Fields’ closing the Noise Pop Festival Sunday at the Fox Theatre. Upon arriving around 7:30, roughly 30 minutes before the screening was to start, it was already impossible to get a decent seat at the movie. By around 7:45, anyone just showing up more than likely had to stand or sit upstairs for the movie.
Getting to the documentary, boy, it was good. Directors Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara did a brilliant job cracking the assumption of elitism and apparent racism in Merritt and showcasing his hilariously dry personality, his decades-strong friendship with fellow bandmate Claudia Gonson and Merritt’s companion chihuahua, Irving.
The audience laughed at the nuances of his character, his dead-pan humor, and his choice of writing his songs in the window sills of gay bars across the country. The film, which cuts 10 years worth of footage into 85 minutes, displays the process and trials of Merritt and the band’s nearly 20 year run at making remarkably simple, yet iconic songs and leaves the audiences mesmerized. I mean, the bar was empty for the entire duration of the film and you know how hard it is for San Franciscans to endure anything without a constant stream of alcohol.
After the documentary, a brief Q&A session with the directors, Gonson, and Merritt followed. Directors Fix and O’Hara answered questions about their collaborative working style and what it was like to work on a movie for a decade. Gonson answered questions from her stance as a manager. However, what really stole the show was Merritt’s hilariously blunt non-answers to questions like Joy Division’s Ian Curtis being an influence to him (“Claudia, you do sound a lot like Ian Curtis”), future projects (“Shut up”), and his thoughts on piracy (“…”). Once the Q&A ended, Fix, O’Hara and Gonson stayed to talk to fans and friends while Merritt swiftly and silently disappeared backstage. A very fitting end to the night.
If you missed the screening, you’re (locally) out of luck. Strange Powers is heading to Austin, Texas for its official world premiere at South by Southwest Festival on March 15th. However, if you missed Stephin Merritt, don’t worry. He’ll be back with the San Francisco International Film Festival to perform an original score to the silent film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on May 4.