Wild Combination: A Portrait Of Arthur Russell
Warm and insightful documentary traces the beguiling apparition that was Arthur Russell
Due to the scant availability of interview footage with Wild Combination’s notoriously shy subject, Arthur Russell seems ghostlike even in this documentary dedicated to his short life and voluminous works; there, but not there. Director Matt Wolf nevertheless evokes the late composer/cellist assuredly: through the words of his family, friends and peers, still photographs and flickering passages of live performance, and, most of all, his music, Russell haunts every frame.
There was always something spectral, something haunting about Russell’s music, this quality uniting a body of work that embraced such divergent strands as Avant Garde composition, introspective and fragile folk song, and ecstatic, trance-like early Disco. Born and raised in the rural wilds of Iowa, Russell was a sweet-hearted, acne-scarred misfit curious about drugs and alternative lifestyles, and consumed by music. Aged sixteen he moved to San Francisco at the dawn of the Hippy Age, beginning a journey that would draw him to New York City, and the subterranean poetry and experimental music scenes. Of seeing Russell perform for the first time, sometimes collaborator Allen Ginsberg recalls here, in footage from Russell’s funeral, that he was “like William Carlos Williams, but he sings.”
Russell thrived in New York, spending his nights working as musical director of The Kitchen – the Greenwich Village artspace located within the Mercer Arts Center – or at David Mancuso’s hedonistic and joyous Loft parties, where Disco first stirred. This breadth of creative focus perhaps both explains Russell’s relative low profile during his lifetime, operating within the experimental fringes of underground art and music, and also why his music has developed such a swarming following in the years after his death. “How could one person work in all these different ways?” ponders musicologist David Toop, one of the movie’s talking heads. “Not many people allow themselves the full extent of their complexities.”
Wild Combination conjures up a man alive with brilliant ideas – friend and early collaborator Phillip Glass remembers Russell’s dreams of composing “Buddhist Bubblegum music” – but the narrative’s turn for the tragic, with Russell’s positive diagnosis for HIV, shifts the documentary into more emotional territory, which Wolf handles with tender skill. Tom Lee, Russell’s partner since 1980, paints the man behind the music as “the person I wanted to end every day with”.
Most haunting is the footage of Russell performing late in his life, already visibly ravaged by AIDS, but still able to pluck beauty from a cello, an echo pedal and his warmly unguarded voice. “His gifts were increasing, as his strength was leaving him,” notes one friend, but the movie also traces the rebirth his music has enjoyed of late, thanks to the efforts of Steve Knutson of Audika Records, releasing unheard Russell music and curating his legacy from Tom Lee’s vast collection of tapes.
The final moments of the movie find Lee discussing the comfort those cassettes give him today, smiling at the sound of Russell’s voice, a fitting close for this affecting exploration of ghostly magic.
(c) Stevie Chick 2009
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