Strange Powers


It has been eleven years since The Magnetic Fields released the three-album set 69 Love Songs—with its funny-sad, sarcastic, satirical songs about, well, love songs.

That work delivered The Magnetic Fields to a wider, if not wide, audience with classics like “The Book of Love” (“The book of love is long and boring / No one can lift the damn thing”), “Come Back from San Francisco” (“It can’t be all that pretty / when all of New York City misses you”), “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits,” “Papa Was a Rodeo,” “A Pretty Girl is Like…,” “Epitaph for My Heart,” “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side,” “The Cactus Where Your Heart Should Be,” and sixty-one others.

The Magnetic Fields still perform live and have released three studio albums since 69 Love Songs, including 2010’s Realism. In addition, a new documentary, now playing in movie theaters around the country, tells the story of the band and its creative force, the singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt.

Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields might cover ground familiar to ardent fans, and it doesn’t dig all that very deep, but it’s worth seeing in particular for lengthy interviews with Merritt and the band as well as for insights into their songwriting process and archival footage and live performances.

Merritt, the baritone voice of The Magnetic Fields, appears in the film as his usual droll self. Some New Yorkers might be surprised to discover at film’s end that the forty-four-year-old downtown artist has left the City—for Los Angeles and movie soundtrack work, he says. What all fans will appreciate, however, is the portrait of Claudia Gonson. Merritt extols her importance to the band, and this is plain in Strange Powers, as her infectious enthusiasm and boisterous stage presence as well as her musicianship and collaboration with Merritt, and her deft managerial skills, have likely kept the band on track from the outset.

She’s also a fine documentarian/archivist in her own right—having held on to ephemera from the very early days of the project, which she shares with the film’s audience: handwritten notes from a very young Merritt, photos, home movies, well-articulated personal memories.

Strange Powers is playing in New York and will also run in Toronto, Los Angeles, Durham, Austin, Cleveland, San Francisco, Columbus, Minneapolis, Duluth, Denver, and Seattle. For additional cities as well as dates and times, visit the movie’s website:

Kevin Nolan writes essays and fiction. More from this author →