Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell. Matt Wolf, director. Plexifilm, 2008.
The outlines of the life of the composer, instrumentalist, and vocalist Arthur Russell are easy enough to sketch. Born in Oskaloosa, Iowa, in 1951, Russell grew up in the Midwest when the United States was at its most Middle American. The safeness of the environment persuaded him to run away from home and settle first in Iowa City—the nearest recognizably alternative location—and then San Francisco, where he hovered on the fringes of the countercultural movement by joining a Buddhist commune as well as studying simultaneously at the San Francisco Conservatory and the Ali Akbar College of Music. In 1973 Russell decided to move to New York to try and make it as a working composer and cellist, and after enrolling at the Manhattan School of Music he segued into the downtown music scene, where he worked while living in the East Village until he died of complications from AIDS in 1992.
Russell’s musical life is much harder to summarize because it lacked a coherent arc and refused to settle within any genre. Performing and recording compositional music, pop music, new wave, disco and post-disco dance music, songs for voice and cello, and hip hop–inflected electronic songs, all in a blur of scene-hopping simultaneity, Russell sometimes sought to create music that was recognizable, but more often explored illicit combinations of styles and instruments, sometimes to the consternation of his collaborator/peers. Pursuing this practice across nearly twenty years, Russell came to be a strikingly mobile musician in a milieu that was in many respects distinguished by its relentless mobility. Contemporaries such as Laurie Anderson, the Beastie Boys, Blondie, Philip Glass, Madonna, Steve Reich, and Talking Heads demonstrated that downtowners could break through commercially if they were willing to repeat themselves enough to develop a coherent sound. Russell wasn’t willing to define himself and died in relative anonymity.
Two years after Russell's passing, Glass, a dedicated friend and supporter, released a compilation of Russell’s songs on Point Music titled Another Thought, and as the years passed, the posthumous album looked as though it would be the last of its kind. Toward the beginning of 2004, however, Soul Jazz and Audika released two more compilations¾the Soul Jazz effort focused on Russell’s twelve-inch dance singles, and the Audika album showcased his electronic pop recordings of the mid-1980s¾and the coincidence of their timing encouraged David Toop to publish a prominent feature about Russell in the Wire. That piece inspired the New York Times and the New Yorker to publish their own prominent features, which in turn led scores of other publications to commission articles. The activity set the scene for the release of several more Russell albums, most of them put out by Audika, and it also captured the attention of Matt Wolf, a young film director who was looking to produce his first major documentary.
The challenge facing Wolf as he set about making Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, which was eventually released in 2008, is foregrounded at the top of the film. “If you listen to Arthur’s music and you’re not familiar with it, then you think, ‘Well, how could one person work in all these different ways?’” observes Toop in the first talking head comment of the film. “Not many people allow themselves the full extent of their complexity.” Elegant and apt, Toop’s comment suggests the question: How will Russell’s complexity be captured on film? Will the documentary attempt to chart its subject’s labyrinthine movements and projects, developing each in rich descriptive and analytical detail? Or will the film allow Russell’s complexity to lie with the comments of Toop and other collaborators in order to choose a different route into Russell’s world?
The answer is effectively conveyed to the viewer before Toop even gets to deliver his analysis. Opening with a slow-moving pan across a space-age–looking fish tank, the film switches to a shot of a cassette tape drifting in luminous water, while Russell croons over an amplified, echo-laden cello. Images of a cartridge running on a turntable, a downtown dance floor, and an Iowa cornfield lead into Toop’s comment. By then it is clear that Wolf is set on evoking the affective quality of Russell’s life¾the experience of growing up in Oskaloosa, the recurring fascination with water, the attraction to the visceral rhythms of the dance floor¾rather than having talking heads explain that life. Ensuing images of the Staten Island ferry, the family home where Russell grew up, the downtown dance floor of a private party called the Gallery, the East Village Street where Russell lived in New York, and other settings are punctuated with photos as well as a small amount of video footage. Video was an emerging art form when Russell moved downtown, particularly in settings such as the Kitchen, where he worked as the music director for a season, but Russell was camera shy and hoped his listeners would be content with sound.
When Wolf turns to talking heads, he develops them as characters that contribute to the film’s subtle, intertwining narrative strands, as well as to its affective idiom. The dreamy sighs emitted by Russell’s devoted lover, Tom Lee, the quivering lip of Russell’s father, Chuck, and the longing expression of Russell’s bass player collaborator, Ernie Brooks, outlast any of their comments. Indeed, Wolf set out to make an experimental film that would introduce visual collages over Russell’s intimate compositions until the director met Lee to elicit his approval and ended up concluding that Russell’s lover would make for a compelling character in his own right. The decision to edge toward character was cemented when Wolf met Russell’s parents, who had responded generously to their son’s frequent requests for money, even though they didn’t always care for his music. Alongside the angelic Lee, Chuck steals the film; his humor, integrity, intelligence, and emotional range deliver a blow to anyone who harbors the thought that Middle Americans are by definition reactionary.
Running at seventy-one minutes, the film is as light and intuitive as much of Russell’s music, even if Russell’s death from AIDS leads Wolf to develop a more melancholic tone than can be heard in Russell’s recordings. Such concision leaves Wolf further exposed to the charge that he could have developed a more thorough overview of Russell's life, and some of the omissions carry a degree of lingering pain, especially when they involve musicians who worked closely with Russell. Other omissions can be traced to the lens through which Wolf views Russell, which is primarily that of a young gay filmmaker who became intrigued when an acquaintance told him that Russell was a young gay Buddhist composer whose ambition was to record bubble-gum music. Wolf, however, never set out to produce a definitive documentary, and he made a point of acknowledging as much when he subtitled the film “a portrait.” Wolf’s is one take on Russell, and there’s no questioning the perceptive beauty of the result.