Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields is showing at 9:30 p.m. Sunday, and 4 p.m. Saturday at SIFF Cinema.
There's a school of thought among some music journalists that interviewing musicians is a waste of time. They have nothing interesting to say, so the theory goes, and whatever they do say isn't insightful in the slightest. In Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, the proudly difficult frontman builds a potentially insurmountable fortress around the aforementioned philosophy.
All of the film's dialogue is stage-banter grade in that it's meant to be quick and witty, but is flat and lifeless. And Merritt exposes himself to be little more than an intellectual bully, thin skinned and offending. He tells his longtime collaborator/manager Claudia Gonson--perhaps in jest, but humor doesn't seem to be in Merritt's repertoire--"I read 20 times more than you." Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein even confesses to being intimidated by Merritt because "he just always seems superior to everyone else."
What little insight we can glean from this fawning, directionless documentary is not that Merritt strives to be the smartest guy in the room, but that he is afraid of not appearing to be the room's intellectual superior, even if that means cutting down friends, colleagues, and morning-show hosts in the process.