Schubert. On Film.


Posted in 2000s, Reviews by schubertonfilm on February 3, 2010


Directed by: MATT WOLF


Arthur Russell lived out his life as a virtual unknown. A staple of the underground 70’s and 80’s NYC scene, he released few albums and even fewer under his real name. He wrote some disco hits in the late 70’s, but his true genius came in the 80’s, when he began bridging the gap between classical and popular music, creating atmospheric and experimental tunes with his prized cello. His albums were barely released and only now, with the advent of the web, is he experiencing the kind of popularity he so richly deserved.

In Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, director Matt Wolf mostly chooses to concentrate on Russell’s complex personal life and eccentricities rather than his music, which is fine because he is such a fascinating character. Interviews with his normal, straight-laced parents plot out his beginnings, an Iowa farmboy who moves to the city and hooks up with luminaries like Philip Glass and Allen Ginsburg, who are both interviewed here. He jammed with the Modern Lovers and the Talking Heads before getting caught up in the whirlwind of disco, writing and producing songs under the guises Dinosaur L and Indian Ocean, before finally going under his own name in the mid eighties. Though critically acclaimed, his albums did not sell well, a result of being ahead misunderstood and ahead of his time. He spent most of his life in virtual obscurity until his tragic death of AIDS in 1992.

Wolf is at a relative disadvantage with Russell in terms of period footage, but manages to use the lack of footage to his advantage. His friends and family let us in on who he was: a perfectionist. Endlessly tinkering with songs, he ended up with a wealthy archive of unreleased material, as he was never fully satisfied. He was hard to deal with, as most brilliant artists are. Controlling and obsessive at times, Russell had to have it his way or no way at all. When his band The Necessaries were on their way to the first show of their tour, Russell demanded to be let out of the van, in the Holland Tunnel, no less. He got into a physical match with his bandmate, giving virtually no reason for exiting. He was an artist that needed to work on his own. But unlike most artists, he lived a stable and domesticated life in a rent-controlled New York apartment, living with his partner Tom Lee, who is interviewed at length in the film.

A brilliant choice Wolf makes is providing reenactments of casual events in Russell’s life. Like when he used to take the Staten Island Ferry, looking out at the sea and listening to his Walkman. The word ‘reenactments’ makes this sound like an A&E crime investigation but it’s done with style and taste. Filmed on Super8, it had me fooled: it actually looks like the eighties. No faces are shown, just the sea or the walkman and this visual trick further immerses you into Russell’s state of mind.

For a debut documentary, Wolf has a promising future ahead. The best documentaries are the ones that take you out of your life and put you in the time and place of its subject’s. And Wild Combination does just that. It takes you back to the vibrating New York time period when musicians and poets would live together, the newest art changed an entire culture and a strange musician like Arthur Russell could thrive.


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