Dir: Matt Wolf. US. 2008. 70mins.
A long-neglected cult musician gets his well-deserved moment in the limelight in Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, a moving, celebratory documentary that will turn many viewers on to its subject's strange, compelling sounds. Expect neither myth-making nor music-biz scandal from this level-headed, informative piece, but do expect to be moved by the story of an under-rated visionary who died tragically young in 1992.
While New York-based experimenter Russell doesn't have quite the same legendary cachet, the film could find the same audience that took to the recent portrait of cult singer Scott Walker, 30 Century Man. While theatrical exposure will be limited, festivals with musical, documentary and gay angles will love Matt Wolf's film, and DVD sales should go hand in hand with the current CD rediscovery of along-lost oeuvre.
Russell's music definitely lives up to the title Wild Combination, which comes from one of his songs. A cellist, singer and sometimes guitarist, Russell was a confirmed experimenter, with one foot in the avant-garde and another in the world of pop and dance. As a solo artist, he specialised in increasingly abstract acoustic music, with throbbing, effects-heavy settings for his off-beat melodies and airy vocals. But Russell was also a waywardly inventive producer at the height of disco, producing joyously weird, but also danceable, cult hits under assorted pseudonyms including Loose Joints, Indian Ocean and Dinosaur L (the timelessly weird 'Go Bang').
The portrait builds up through candid and tender interviews with those who knew Russell, including composer Philip Glass, and archive footage, plus judicious use of evocative reconstructions, notably of the Loft club where Russell's experiments were nurtured. The film starts out from Russell's altogether ordinary childhood in Oskaloosa, Iowa, where a picture emerges of an imaginative but withdrawn boy. It follows him to San Francisco in the late 60s, where Russell joined a Buddhist collective, then to New York in the years prior to the punk explosion, where Allen Ginsberg was a neighbour and - by his own admission - a besotted admirer.
Setting up house with boyfriend Tom Lee - who emerges in the film as a constant and sympathetic support - Russell explored his music in assorted settings, including rock bands and performance art. His career blossomed with the dance boom, but Russell's introspection, workaholism and sheer perfectionism didn't best equip him to pursue the commercial career
he craved. While his music became increasingly hard to market, projects such as a prestige collaboration with director Robert Wilson foundered on Russell's erratic practices.
Contracting Aids, Russell finally succumbed to dementia and throat cancer. With bitter irony, it's suggested that, as his health declined, his music was becoming ever more inspired. A coda shows how, following recent releases of long-lost material, Russell's reputation has belatedly flourished. But while Russell's more experimental music is celebrated in full, the film somewhat skimps on his disco years, rather overlooking the extent of his influence on the emerging acid house and techno genres.
There's no sensationalism or hagiography here, nor does the film stray into arcane muso lore. It's simply a sensitive attempt to sketch the personality and achievement of a private, unassuming man who was committed to his craft. Interviewees include record company founders Will Socolow and Steve Knutson, plus critic David Toop, who pays tribute to the 'oceanic formlessness'of Russell's music. Wolf also draws exceptionally poignant testimonies from Tom Lee and from Russell's likeable, supportive parents Chuck and Emily. But it's
Russell's music that speaks most eloquently, and the film makes you glad that, at long last, there's plenty of it around.
+1 646 2328736
Shelley Fox Aarons
Director of photography
Jody Lee Lipes