Wild Combination (2007, Director: Matt Wolf): Until about a year ago, I’d never heard of Arthur Russell. A classically-trained cellist who died at the age of 40 in 1992, Russell was in danger of falling into obscurity. But then something wonderful happened. Those closest to him began to re-release some of the music he created and suddenly a man who seemed out of his time while alive began to influence a new generation of musicians. The 2004 compilation Calling Out of Context is a good place to begin. It was around the time of that CD release that director Matt Wolf became familiar with Russell, and decided to make the film.
Russell was born and raised in Oskaloosa, Iowa, but ran away to San Francisco while still in his teens, where he joined a Buddhist commune. It was in San Francisco that he made the acquaintance of Allen Ginsberg, and the two remained friends and collaborators for years to come. Russell soon followed Ginsberg to New York, where he soon become part of the artistic landscape at The Kitchen. Part of the avant-garde scene that included Philip Glass, Russell wrote and performed here regularly, often singing along with his cello-playing. It was during this period that Russell began to acknowledge his homosexuality, eventually meeting and falling in love with Tom Lee, who was (and remains) a tireless supporter of his work. His involvement in the gay scene introduced him to underground discotheques, and soon he was writing dance music under aliases such as Dinosaur L, Indian Ocean and Loose Joints. Though he achieved some modest commercial success with these records, he never really made a breakthrough, perhaps because his talent was too big to be confined to one type of music. The film features a generous selection of his work, and it ranges from avante-garde to dance to pop to folk rock, all of it accompanied by Russell’s utterly unique singing voice. He used his voice as another instrument but it gave all of his music a slightly odd quality, making it commercially unappealing at the time. It didn’t help that he was a perfectionist, rarely feeling that a record was “finished” and making it extremely difficult for him to take direction from others. Later in his life, he began to exhibit symptoms of paranoia, feeling that other musicians were stealing his ideas.
Matt Wolf has made an immersive film that rightfully foregrounds the music, often accompanying it with evocative scenes of the vast Iowa landscape that seems to have informed Russell’s work. Another musical theme was the expansiveness of water, and perhaps it was this desire for open space that led Russell to spend so much time on the Staten Island Ferry, scenes which Wolf has recreated by filming with vintage video cameras. I had a mixed reaction upon learning that so much of the “archival” footage in the film was recreated. As Wolf explains, there just wasn’t that much real archival footage to work with, but I think I would have preferred that the film itself carried some disclaimer that the footage wasn’t authentic instead of having to hear it from him in the Q&A. But don’t let that stop you from seeing the film. For those with some familiarity with Arthur Russell, it will fill in the picture behind the music, but more importantly, it will help you to introduce the work of this undisputed genius to your friends.
Here is the Q&A with director Matt Wolf from after the screening: