Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell (****)
Matt Wolf’s new documentary on cult musician Arthur Russell, Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, comes on the heels of a wave of reissues and endorsements by Jens Lekman, Victoria Bergsman, and Joel Gibb of the Hidden Cameras. Thankfully, Wolf is not out to position Russell as seminal or hip, but to use the events of his short life (ended by AIDS, in 1992) as a testament to his subject’s quiet, unflagging dedication to his art.
Russell played the cello, which he recorded uniquely, usually singing in a pretty warble overtop simple strummed or plucked motifs (similar motifs are a feature of his dance music, with its primitive beats and goofy, repetitive hooks). There is much to be said about this approach and its technical facets, and also about Russell’s lyrics, but Wolf is most interested in the musician’s intimates: from his long-time partner, Tom Lee, to his parents; from Allen Ginsberg (seen talking about him in archival footage) to the Modern Lovers’ Ernie Brooks, with whom he formed a band. Russell’s apparent obstacles, such as his isolated Midwestern upbringing, his homosexuality and his final illness, are not dwelt on excessively; instead interviewees speak to how Russell’s work touched and even transfigured the relationships they had with him.
Fittingly, Wild Combination’s style is unostentatious and atmospheric. New York in the ’70s and ’80s is evoked through archival photos and footage, and is fathomable and never overdrawn, unlike so many documentaries about the same time and place. Wolf’s only mythic indulgence is Russell’s own: that state of dopey dreaming that he spent the entirety of his short existence cultivating, and which all creatively inclined people know like the backs of their hands.
Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell is playing at the Royal Ontario Museum (100 Queen’s Park) on May 18, as part of the Inside Out Festival.