Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell

Matt Wolf

BY Brock ThiessenPublished Nov 25, 2008

After a lifetime of obscurity, Arthur Russell is brought into sharper focus with Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, a touchingly personal documentary on the long-neglected musician’s life and music. Through the lens of director Matt Wolf, the film recreates the rise and all too quick fall of the Iowa-born composer, who became a seminal figure in the left-field New York music scene of the ’70s and ’80s before his untimely death in 1992. At the age of 40, Russell succumbed to AIDS, but not before recording one of the most eccentric, as well as beautiful, bodies of work. Lovingly dubbed by friend Allen Ginsberg as "Buddhist bubblegum,” Russell’s music took many forms: avant-garde classicalism, voice-and-cello experimentation, singer-songwriter pop and disco. But Russell’s work was "out of its time,” as former Modern Lover Ernie Brooks says, with Russell desperately scratching at the door of mass appeal but never quite breaking through. In Wild Combination, Wolf tells this tragic tale of failed pop stardom through several intimately handled interviews, such as with Russell’s parents, long-time boyfriend Tom Lee and admirers like Philip Glass and Jens Lekman. These often tear-welling conversations carry most of the film’s weight, delving as much into Russell’s personality as his music and, in turn, creating a more personal portrait than the kind you’d expect from a music documentary. Also unlike many a rock doc, Wolf has created a satisfying cinematic experience, bringing colour to the film with a breathtaking mix of landscape shots, live performances, archival footage and, above all, a great sense for storytelling. Add in the DVD release’s 60 minutes-plus of extras, which include full-length performances, Ginsberg’s memorial mantra to Russell and musical tributes by Lekman, Hidden Cameras’ Joel Gibb and Verity Susman of Electrelane, and it’s difficult to imagine fans, newcomers or simply moviegoers wanting anything more out of Wild Combination.

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