This week I watched two music documentaries, Strange Powers and Better Than Something, both of which are about prodigious musical talents, Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields and Jay Reatard (RIP) respectively, who also have/had reputations for being, well, sort of assholes. Merritt, when not writing smart, archly witty pop songs with the Fields or his other bands turns out to be smart, archly witty, and rather prickly; he's a control freak in the studio (fair enough, obviously); he's a notoriously terse interview. Jay Reatard, when turning out poppy punk and metal influenced garage rock songs at a dizzying rate, is picking fights, abusing his bandmates or himself onstage, smoking crack, hilariously sass-talking interviewers, and so on.
I went into Stranger Powers (via Netflix) liking the Magnetic Fields quite a bit and not really caring about Merritt's eccentricities, except in as much as they might provide background color (brown, natch) about the band, and I came out of the film feeling about the same. I went into Better Than Something (at the Grand Illusion, playing tonight at 7pm and 9pm) not really caring about Jay or his music at all, but came out of it liking both a fair deal better than before. So which was the successful documentary? Both of them.
Obviously, the goal of a documentary needn't be to make you like its subject or even sympathize with them, really. And similarly, you don't have to like an artist to appreciate their art. This has been brought up here before (note: I object to this article's royal "we"--I can live without at least half these jags), but it's more than just certain artists being so good that it outweighs or overpowers their being assholes ("they are too damn good to quit"), it's that their being assholes is wholly irrelevant to the worth of their art. I'm never going to hang out with Stephin Merritt, so why should I give a shit if he's kind of a jerk? I'm not a concerned mom (or a conservative prude), so why would I need Jay Reatard to have been a well-behaved role model?
There are well-worn limits to this liberating "death of the author" sort of thinking, and it's usually when vile ideals or deeds intrude upon the art itself: Skrewdriver making music that is expressly neo-nazi in its lyrics, or Odd Future dropping homophobic and sexist slurs (a shocking first for rap music, according to last year's most credulous indie rock bloggers). And of course, it's every consumer/patron's right not to financially support artists they find objectionable, whether for ideological or even aesthetic or whatever reasons. But even here there's gray area--well, at least with Odd Future: art can reflect real ugliness in our culture, performing artists can play despicable roles without actually endorsing them, and shock can be as valid an artistic technique as sympathy.
Interestingly, there was one moment out of the two documentaries in which an artist's personal disposition or beliefs was brought up as potentially relevant to their art, and it was when the Magnetic Fields doc covered the dust-up several years back when Sasha Frere-Jones of the New Yorker and Jessica Hopper sort of called Merritt a "racist" for not listening to rap, not listing enough African-American artists on a list of 100 favorite songs he wrote one time, and for expressing (in the context of a conference about "guilty pleasures") a fondness for Song of the South's "Zipedee Do Dah." Somewhat anti-climatically for the sake of the film, Merritt was not discovered to be a closet white secessionist.
So, anyway, two fascinating, talented jerks, with two very different backgrounds and stories and legacies, and two films you can enjoy really whether you care for the people or their music or not--although I think by the end of either, you'd be a fool not to like at least the music.