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Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell

Calling into Context

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Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell

Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell


It Could Milk More Celebrity Mileage...

Normal music documentaries don't go like this. Having become an industry unto themselves, cinematic portraits of 'cult' musical figures are shocking in their artless similarity: in betweenst prized snippets of archival footage, an unending parade of celebrity talking heads wax rhapsodically, like besotted fans, about this long-lost musical subject they never knew. There's Henry Rollins, there's Bono, there's Thurston Moore, there's Byron Coley, yapping away; so much rehearsed anecdotery amounting to little more than a toothless, meaningless kind of DVD hagiography.

This is not how Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell goes. Matt Wolf's sweet sketch of this peculiar musical figure is couched wholly in the personal. Wolf, safe in the knowledge that the reissue-mania of the current climate will surely turn out much of Arthur Russell's shadowy back-catalogue unto the public, chooses to go beyond the music, to eschew the opinions of those who've only known him on record (well, except, in a brief snippet, sentimental Swedish crooner Jens Lekman, who assembled the tribute disc Four Songs by Arthur Russell in 2007).

Wolf is out to try and capture the human-being behind the archival tracks. And he does this by speaking to those who really knew him: his parents, his sisters, and, most of all, his longtime boyfriend Tom Lee.

So Busy, So Busy

Russell arrived in New York in 1973. A childhood cello prodigy, Russell was an impish musical talent, adept at almost any instrument placed in front of him, but a pioneering figure, most of all, in the use of recording techniques themselves as a kind of interpretive instrument. His music spanned a ridiculous range —disco, tape collage, avant-garde, folk, country, electro-pop, and hypnotic, minimalist mixes of all of the above— and, across the years, he'd cross paths with numerous figures of much musical weight: Philip Glass, Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson, Larry Levan.

But, mostly, Russell was a loner; an obsessive home-recorder who'd chew through hundreds upon hundreds of cassettes, slaving away at dozens of different mixes, edits, and takes of every composition. It's Wolf's ambition to, if not puncture that isolationism, at least make sense of it, to view the man (who died of AIDS in 1992) behind the recordings.

Other, more sales-minded directors would do that by the sweeping generalizations spewed forth by famous interviewees. Wolf, instead, uses Russell's relationship with Lee as prism to view his subject; charting it as a relationship filled with as much friction as love, pinpointing Russell as an 'absent' figure whose devotion was to his music, foremost.

Wolf doesn't make the mistake of viewing Russell through the rose-colored hindsight. And his portrait of a flawed, compulsive person not only makes for a more dramatically satisfying motion-picture, but actually makes Russell's aching, personal, strange music seem even more magical, more honest, more true.

Studio: Plexifilm
Release Date: 18 November 2008

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