Iconoclast and curmudgeon noted for the highest of dudgeon and walking-talking rhyming dictionary Stephin Merritt seems not to blink under the onslaught of curiosity from the cameras of Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara, the filmmakers who hope to tease or tear insights into his music-making in “Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt And The Magnetic Fields.” Offering asides that range from first arriving in New York to subsist on buttered bagels to getting on his way to his ambition of writing 100 successful Hollywood musicals, Merritt, who Neil Gaiman observes, was once profiled to make “Lou Reed look like Little Orphan Annie,” lets viewers in on a generous amount of process. The ever-resistant interviewee is ever self-conscious: “I love your shoes” is a brisk aside to escape the camera’s gaze. The glimpses range from the learned banter between himself and collaborator-manager-friend-“fag hag”-mother figure Claudia Gonson to his apartment and home recording studio, closets filled with eccentric sound-makers and Page and page and page of notebook and pocket pad and journal etched with his lyrics-making. (The scene is warmer, but reminiscent of the tubs and tubs of unlabeled videocassettes in “Exit Through The Gift Shop.”) Sitting in the window pew of a Christopher Street bar in late afternoon with a notebook and a snifter of brandy, Merritt says in voiceover, “This is not something I do for an hour, this is something I do for eight hours.” Both iconic and unknown, Merritt shows how to make beauty from concentrate and from focus. As if he had a choice. With Sam Davol, Shirley Simms, Daniel Handler, Sarah Silverman, Peter Gabriel. 89m. (Ray Pride)
“Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt And The Magnetic Fields” opens Friday at Siskel.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.