Songmakers: Strange Powers—Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields; TrinityRoots, Music Is Choice

FILM, Film Festivals

Two bands in the spotlight.

The evolution of a band—one still going strong, one long disbanded—is at the heart of two fantastic music documentaries at the New Zealand International Film Festival this year: Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, and TrinityRoots, Music Is Choice.

I fell in love with Magnetic Fields (their album 69 Love Songs, anyway) one gloomy summer day heading into Hamner. It was a crazy, funny jumble of an album, and unlike anything I’d heard before. TrinityRoots, on the other hand, have remained on the periphery. Although two or three songs have caught my attention, and Home Land and Sea soundtracked one of my workplaces for some months, I have yet to be won over—until now.

Strange Powers and TrinityRoots were both made over a period of years, both use a mass of archival footage in various formats, but nothing ever feels out of place. Indeed, both films have such a beautiful flow, visually and narratively, that you can’t help be drawn in. Both also possess a raw honesty and heaps of humour, and in the case of TrinityRoots especially, there are some truly moving and emotional moments to take away.

Magnetic Fields are an American band, driven by Stephin Merritt and long-term bandmate, manager, and best friend, Claudia Gonson. As much as anything else, Strange Powers is about their relationship. Early in the film Peter Gabriel calls Merritt “one of the greatest American songwriters”, but it’s hard to imagine them having anything verging on a hit. Releasing their first album in 1991, at the height of grunge, they eschewed guitars (though, presumably, there were copious ukuleles). Their magnum opus, 69 Love Songs, is exactly what it claims to be, but it is also a musical tour offering at least 69 different musical styles.

Merritt has long been a conceiver. His notebooks betray his conceptual approach, being as full of instructions and ideas, as they are lyrics. The film begins with the recording of i (2004), and ends with the release of Distortion (2008), each with their own conceptual methodology. In between, we get a brief history of Merritt and the band, alongside insights on the creative process, and the odd bit of controversy and conflict (setting up the possibility of a resolution in Act Three).

Someone who clearly feels passionately about music, Merritt has a huge knowledge, a strong philosophy, and fierce opinions. At one point he states that most other musicians emphasise convention over beauty; doing what is current and popular, whereas the basis of Merritt’s art is quite obviously beauty. Towards the end of the documentary we discover a disenchanted man, moving from New York to Los Angeles to try and get into film scoring. He has high expectations of his audience and feels that film music will give him more control.

A collaborative recording process, especially with Gonson’s involvement, the band play a major role in both the development of the music. Despite this, Strange Powers is very much Merritt’s show, and the histories of his bandmates are largely left unexplored.

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Like Strange Powers, Music is Choice is wonderfully put together. We are quickly introduced to the trio and their beginnings, both ancestral and the band’s formation. There’s a lovely warmth to this somewhat romantic account of the band’s history. There’s an honesty too, especially when discussing issues around the recording of their albums—the usual story of how to translate the live performance to the studio.

While the trio are undoubtedly serious about the music they created, Warren Maxwell and Rio Hemopo come across as jokers, while Riki Gooch seems more earnest. I’ve long considered TrinityRoots as an overly serious band, but outside of the music there’s a huge amount of humour. Others who help tell the story are onetime bandmate Mu, music critic Grant Smithies, band manager Toby Larmer, and producer Lee Prebble.

Towards the end of the film, Prebble remarks that TrinityRoots have a little place in a lot of people’s hearts. Music is Choice reaffirms that notion. It ends with the tantilising possiblility of a reunion—albeit footage filmed in 2005—and certainly for the audience I saw the film with, a reunion couldn’t come soon enough.

Both Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields and TrinityRoots, Music Is Choice are testament to the patience of the filmmakers as much as to the musicians and the story of the bands. TrinityRoots was one of New Zealand’s great bands, and Music is Choice is (in the immediate afterglow of viewing) one of the great New Zealand music films. A high bar has been set, but here’s hoping for more documentaries about more great Kiwi bands—for a start, I’ll put in a request for The Clean and Chris Knox.

‘Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields’, Dir. Kerthy Fix, Gail O’Hara
USA, 2010; 82 minutes
Screening: Auckland, Wellington.
‘TrinityRoots, Music Is Choice’, Dir. Sarah Hunter
NZ, 2010; 70 minutes
Screening: Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin. For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit nzff.co.nz. For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit nzff.co.nz.